The news that Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands will join forces to supply 100 Leopard1A5 is good news for Ukraine. That is the case even if it is significantly older than the Leopard 2A6 and a step below the 2A4 when it comes to protection and raw firepower. It is, however, in some ways what Ukraine needs.
The Leopard 1 (known simply as ‘Leopard’ when it first entered service) was an attempt to push the Mobility – Firepower part of the performance triangle while sacrificing some of the Protection in the process. It wasn’t an overly successful concept and the Leopard 2 took a step back to a more balanced (and successful) concept. The bad news is that the Leopard 1 has not improved with age as the Cold War has faded into history. The prime example is the main armament: the legendary 105 mm Royal Ordnance L7 (M68 to you US tankers) which was responsible for the firepower-part of the original Leopard’s design. Once the finest tank gun of the west and fitted to a host of different tanks, it is by now (as are rifled 105 mm guns in general) outdated for tank killing. The 105 mm rifled has been gradually replaced in the West by 120 mm smoothbores as the main tank armament starting in the 80’s with the introduction of the Leopard 2. However, on the positive side, while the L7 is outdated, so are a lot of the potential targets on the battlefield in Ukraine. The T-62 and T-64 are roughly of the same generation, and a lot of the T-72 running around are not the latest and greatest T-72B3M, but Cold War carry-overs.
Another key aspect here is that when discussing tank guns, ammunition is often forgotten. There are huge differences between the capabilities of individual tank rounds also when fired from the same gun. It is somewhat unclear how the 105 mm rounds will be sourced, and what ammunition will be used by the Leopard 1A5s. Countries that still operate 105 mm equipped tanks obviously have rounds in storage, and likely relatively new ones. Greece with both the Leopard 1 and M48 Patton is a good example, and they might share a few rounds even if their tanks are expected to stay where they are. There are still modern 105 mm on offer which includes e.g. Nexter offering the MECAR developed M1060A2 and -A3 APFSDS-T anti-tank rounds (as well as a HEAT-round). What kind of production numbers you get is anyone’s guess, as is how many and what kind of rounds are left in storage. An interesting round that is unlikely to reach Ukraine is the M900 APFSDS-T which was used by the US in the now retired Stryker-version desginated M1128 Mobile Gun System, which while very cool-looking was retired due to a number of different issues. As one of the last modern platforms to bring the M68 to the battlefield, its failure is the kind of thing people point to when questioning whether the 105 mm has any role on the modern battlefield. Still, the fact is that the vehicle did see the light of day and operational service up until recently means the US does have modern 105 mm APFSDS-T rounds in service despite the 105 mm Abrams having been retired, though these rounds come with depleted Uranium penetrators which are controversial and unlikely to be exported.
For the Leopard 1 in particular, the best widely used round for the Leopard 1A5 is the DM63, a German license produced version of the Israeli M426. You might/probably/perhaps/will bag a T-72B with it, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to try. There are Swedish trials which have seen DM63 (locally called Slpprj 90, a wonderfully impossible to pronounce abbreviation from the words SpårLjus PansarPRoJektil) pass “straight through” the turret of a T-72M1, though it is notable that the M1 is a relatively weakly armoured export-version of the tank. A Finnish armoured officer in turn makes the comparison to the older 120 mm DM33, so most older versions of T-72 and T-80 (and T-62/T-64) should be vulnerable.
Yes I did analysis 10 months ago on the same issue. 105mm DM63 is roughly same in terms of capability as 120mm DM33 that was main ammo for Leopard 2A4 that time. So adequate to T-72/T-80's. Let's face it, Kontakt-5 ERA effect on APFSDS-T is controversial.https://t.co/QKrublGEiS
Of course, the Israeli connection might be an issue. Or then not. There’s unconfirmed (and I stress that word) reports the Slovenian delivery of the M-55S included the DM63 (seems likely Israel had to sign off on the M-55S in either case considering Elbit’s role in the upgrade, giving some credibility to the rumour). If you could get the Israelis onboard, you might also be able to low-key buy an even nicer piece of kit – Elbit’s M428 Sword. In either case, the M-55S has brought the L7 to the Ukrainian battlefield already, meaning that at least on a smaller scale someone has been studying the options for supplying the gun with ammunition.
However, in either case, let’s not bash the L7 too much. Ukraine currently has tanks capable of using significantly better rounds in the form of the Soviet-origin 125 mm smoothbore 2A46 fitted to the T-64, T-72, and T-80 families of vehicles. With the capture of T-90 and the modern Svinets-family of rounds, Ukraine has access to the most modern Russian APFSDS rounds available which are expected to be decades better than anything that can be fired from the L7. However, that statement – while factually correct – is still misleading as at the same time it seems clear that in many cases Ukraine has had to settle for Cold War-relics as ammunition due to lack of modern rounds. As such, a modern 105 mm round you have has better performance than a modern 125 mm round you don’t.
However, everything is not terrible with the Leopard 1. Key among the nice features are the sensors. The Leopard 1A5 is an upgrade to the baseline Leopard 1 based around the EMES-15 sights and fire control system developed for the Leopard 2 (the 1A5-version being designated the EMES-18) which are top notch compared to almost every tank rolling around in Ukraine at the moment. The Leopard 1A5-designation is also more vague than might initially be expected, as among the possible candidates for delivery is both ex-German 1A5 and ex-Danish 1A5DK which are even further upgraded (described as “except for the gun, much better than the [Leopard 2]A4“). In addition, though so far not approved for export, there are also a number of ex-Belgian Leopard 1A5BE in storage as well as Canadian Leopard C2 which correspond to the 1A5-standard.
The 1A5DK are expected to make up a serious part of the deliveries initially, and as such will further improve on the strengths of the tank (as a side-note, the Danish Leopard 1A5 have also seen combat, when the Jydske Dragonregiment squared off against a number of Srpska T-55s in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994). In modern tank combat, seeing the enemy first and hitting with the first round are a big plus (you will still have to get through the enemy armour, but it’s a start), so the value of these features shouldn’t be underestimated. The lower weight compared to the Leopard 2 (and Abrams and Challengers) will also be a benefit on the battlefield where the lack of (undamaged) heavy road infrastructure and muddy terrain in parts of the country benefit a lighter vehicle. Sure, you probably would prefer to have the armour and 120 mm gun, but better mobility is at least something.
…and perhaps most importantly, the 1A5 are available in nice numbers. Yes, they are old. Yes, sourcing spares and ammunition will be a headache. Yes, they will take time to get out of storage. But having tanks is better than not having tanks.
The following proposal is madness. I’ve been told so in no uncertain terms by people knowledgeable of the matter who’s opinions I highly respect. It runs against both the common discourse as well as what the authorities and officials with detailed classified knowledge about the issues at hand has said in their communiques. It also comes with a hefty price tag, and I have no proposal what should be cut in order to make it fit in under an already unhealthy Finnish budget. But with all that said, isn’t it for these kinds of out-of-the-box craziness that non-aligned defence analysts are valued?
As I think most serious defence analysts are in agreement on, the War in Ukraine has shown the value of armoured protection in general and tanks in particular on an increasingly lethal battlefield. As such, it only makes sense that a very valuable kind of support for Ukraine would be tanks. Tanks, like other high-tech systems such as fighters or warships, age, and while older equipment can be both useful and effective, modern equipment is usually significantly more so. Modern tanks also benefit from more readily available spares and munitions. As such, handing Ukraine modern tanks instead of trying to buy up every available T-72 makes sense.
Of the modern tanks available in Western forces today (M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, Ariete, Challenger 2, Leclerc, and K2 Black Panther), most are either high-maintenance and supply intensive (M1 Abrams), available in very limited numbers (Ariete, Challenger 2, K2 Black Panther, Leclerc), or using non-standard munitions (Challenger 2). As such, the Leopard 2 is the obvious choice (the Leopard 1 is a Cold War-relic that isn’t particularly relevant to the discussion on modern tanks, though the Leopard 1 in later versions certainly can take down a T-62 in a fight).
Finland has the Leopard 2 in two different (MBT) versions, the older Leopard 2A4 and the newer Leopard 2A6. As opposed to what some has reported, both are very much in use and occupy a key role in the Finnish wartime forces as the main armoured spearhead (again, a key capability when it comes to throwing out an attacker that has gotten over the border). The exact numbers are somewhat uncertain for the 2A4, as a number of older hulls have been bought for the express purpose of being cannibalized for spares, and a number has been converted to specialised roles such as bridge-layers, self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, engineering vehicles, and so forth. However, it is safe to say that the number of operational Leopards in Finnish service sits at roughly 80 Leopard 2A4 and 100 Leopard 2A6.
If European countries start sending Leopards to Ukraine – and by now it is starting to be evident that as with most German red lines, this one will become void at some point – the talk in Finland is that Finland would participate, but that the number of tanks would be very limited and that the support would likely focus on training, spares, and similar support missions. Because Finland “can’t send many tanks“.
And here is where I call a foul. Finland can send a significant number of tanks, but it would be expensive and we would take a national security risk.
The short version is that we could send all Leopard 2A4, which would mean the tank part of an under-strength armoured brigade (your order of battle will vary, in Poland 58 tanks is a battalion, in the US 87 tanks is a brigade). The Leopard 2A4-force was slated for a mid-life upgrade already a decade ago, but that was eventually scrapped due to cost and the opportunity to buy second-hand 2A6NL from the Netherlands at throwaway cost. The word then was that they would replace the 2A4 which we couldn’t afford to upgrade, but as it turns out the Finnish Defence Forces decided to instead double the armoured force.
Here we run into a particular quirk of the Finnish Defence Forces: The Army doesn’t like to talk. This isn’t just restricted to tanks, but in general they don’t discuss their wartime formations, and as such they don’t talk about their plans for the future as that would lead to people getting ideas about the current situation. While I can understand that from an OPSEC-perspective, it also leads to situations of serious questions about civilian and budgetary oversight, and for the Army it is significantly harder to “sell” their needs compared to the Navy or the Air Force who rather clearly communicate their equipment needs (which granted are more straightforward, as the number of platforms and their capabilities are to a certain extent simpler). The Army has a hard time saying “Trust us, anything less than 180 main battle tanks and we’re open for invasion” when we apparently were okay with 100 for quite some time after the T-72s all went to scrapheap and the 2A4 was the sole tank in the fleet.
However, I will go out and say that I agree with the current discourse that a single brigade’s worth of tanks is significantly too few for a country the size of Finland, and even two brigades is a questionable minimum. However, defence budgets are tough, so let’s say we are at the rough equilibrium where we can balance the costs of operating 200 tanks with the combat capability needed. Until someone open up the calculations and capabilities a bit more, that sounds like a reasonable equation. If we send the Leopard 2A4s somewhere else, they would obviously need to be replaced, and for once we have something approaching a reasonable cost-estimate. The Norwegian project to acquire new tanks sport a budget of approximately 1.8 billion Euros (19.3 Bn NOK) for 72 new tanks. Say an even 2 Bn EUR for 80 tanks and a solid replacement on a one-to-one basis for Finland. The original plan for the Norwegian deal was deliveries from 2025, but that would have included contract signing last year, and it is safe to assume delivery times might have gone up a bit. As such, shipping away the Leopards now and at the same time ordering a replacement would leave our tank force cut by ~45% for 5-8 years.
So why would Finland send tanks to Ukraine? Why can’t anyone else do so? The whole point was that the Leopard 2 is in widespread use, right?
Numbers are deceiving, and not all Leopard 2s are the same. The 2A4 is the oldest current version, and is in relatively widespread use, while the 2A6 represent a new standard with among other things a more modern gun. The 2A5 sit in-between the 2A4 and the 2A6, while the 2A7 is significantly more modern and only now really starting to roll off the production lines in any serious numbers. However, not all 2A4s are the same either, as most countries do a certain amount of local changes. This can range from mounting your favourite 7.62 mm machine gun to developing national standards calling for their own designations (looking at you, Swedish Strv 122). The Finnish 2A4 is rather close to the German baseline, sporting new and enlarged storage compartments, modified side skirts, and a number of minor detail changes.
As such, while you can certainly mix and match – in particular as long as you stay with the same version – maintenance and spares will obviously be easier the closer you stick to a single national variant. In other words, taking ten vehicles here and ten vehicles there isn’t necessarily the most efficient way (although vastly better than getting ten Challenger 2 and ten Leopards).
And then the numbers aren’t as overwhelming as some would like to make them out to be. There are twenty countries operating the Leopard 2 (21 if you count UAE and their four Wisent 2 AEVs). If we look at the 2A4, in addition to Finland, Spain, Norway, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Chile, Singapore, Canada, and Indonesia operate the tank in any sizeable numbers. Scratch the countries in Asia and South America, because so far the Ukraine aid has been a decidedly North American and European affair. Then you can remove Greece and Turkey, since neither will part with any armour before it literally is falling into pieces. This leaves Norway, Spain, Poland, Canada, and Finland. Poland and Norway are as much of frontline states as Finland, and while Poland already has shipped serious amounts of tanks to Ukraine the roughly 50 2A4s are the only tanks in Norwegian service. Spain indeed has been interested in sending the tanks, but found them to be in too poor condition to be of use. Canada has 42 used in a training role, so these might be of use.
Going to the 2A5 and related versions (including modernised 2A4s), we are looking at Switzerland (strictly “neutral”), Sweden (120 tanks of the unique Strv 122 version, sole tank in use), Poland (frontline state), Singapore (in Asia), Canada (just twenty 2A4M), Indonesia (in Asia). For 2A6, we have Germany, Spain, Finland, Greece, Portugal (just 37 tanks), Canada (just twenty tanks), of which Spain has a serious number (219) of their Leopard 2E-version which could provide a serious number. Germany obviously would be the big player, but they are in fact situated at less than 150 tanks currently, and can hardly be expected to be the leader for this project (or generally when it comes to hard security in Europe).
As such, Finland is – while not completely unique – one of the few countries that could send a sizeable number (more than a battalion) of tanks in good condition, of a single configuration, without giving up most or all of our most modern tanks.
The counter-argument is obviously that we aren’t a NATO-member (yet), which makes things tricky. I agree on that, and that is indeed the key question which only the top-diplomats can currently answer – how safe does the current status as applicants make us feel? How much of a risk would we take by halving our tank force for half a decade?
At the same time, there is a number of other issues affecting Finnish security that would support the decision to send tanks. Ukraine’s success on the battlefield has measurably increased Finnish security in that the forces on the other side of the border are getting shot to pieces somewhere else. Similarly, the war dragging on would in itself be destabilising for the region, as a more desperate Russian political leadership might lash out in unexpected actions, or groups or parts of society inside Russia might start acting in ways counter to Finnish interests and security. On the opposite, further Ukrainian success on the battlefield would likely cause yet more Russian forces to leave their garrisons for a battlefield away from our borders. I believe that most of my readers would agree that a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield in the near-future would be the most preferable outcome for Finnish security (and that is from a strictly realist point of view, there certainly is a moral aspect here as well, but that is a more complex question which would require too much space for me to open up in detail in this post).
A key issue for the FDF would be the question of personnel where we suddenly would train half the number of wartime tank battalions for a few years. This would need careful planning to ensure that there are available officers and NCOs with experience once the new tanks are brought into service. But considering the high tempo of operations during recent years and the fact that the 2A4 and 2A6 gun tanks are only one part of an armoured force that include a number of platforms (at the same time, I realise that going from the 2A4 to a MT-LB might not be a career development to everyone’s liking…) it might be possible to work out a reasonable solution to this issue as well.
As mentioned, the Leopard 2A4 are by now approaching a decade since the planned MLU was cancelled, meaning that they will need either a serious upgrade or a replacement within the next five to ten years in either case. As such, the option of shipping them off to secure Finnish interests in another country is not as outrageously expensive compared to what the eventual budget for them will be in either case (2 Bn EUR is still a huge amount). However, there is the issue with the new replacement tank being several years away. Here, it is notable that Finland has likely never been safer since before the Bolsheviks managed to secure power after the Russian civil war, meaning that we possibly have been offered a unique window that allow for the risk-taking required (if indeed the risk of sending them is seen as greater than the risk of Ukraine not getting a brigade worth of Leopards and how that would benefit Finnish security). It is also notable that even if the war ended tomorrow and Russia started rebuilding their forces, missing the officers and NCOs who have been killed or wounded on the battlefield will cause issues for any rebuilding program.
What could be the next steps if those with access to the folders with red stamps on would decide that the risk of sending Leopards would be smaller than the risk of not doing so? The government and leading opposition parties would have to get together (we are close to a parliamentary election, and this kind of radical decision would need broad parliamentary support to survive), and take the decision to prepare the shipment of the Finnish Leopard 2A4 fleet to Ukraine, publicly announcing it to put pressure on Germany to allow for the export, and decide on additional funding outside of the ordinary defence budget to fund the 2 Bn EUR replacement program. Next step would be to call Norway and the suppliers for their program (Hyundai Rotem and KMW), and ask to be let in on the program. In the best of words, we would be able to just rip off the Norwegian evaluation and ask if everyone would be happy to include an option for an additional 80 or so tanks to Finland according to the same terms and conditions of the Norwegian contract in the same way Estonia has tagged along on Finnish buys of radars and artillery (if we talk really nice to the Norwegians, we might even reach some compromises when it comes to delivery slots despite that causing some delays for them. After all, a strong Finnish Defence Force is a good thing for Norwegian security as well). If there is something with the Norwegian requirements we can’t agree to, we might have to run our own procurement competition, but in either case it should offer plenty of valuable experiences from both bidder and buyer points of view to start the discussion with them – ensuring we hit the ground running in a procurement program where speed would be of the essence.
As such, it’s not that Finland can’t deliver a serious number of tanks to Ukraine – it’s that we aren’t prepared to pay the costs and take the risks such a decision would include. And I for one does not know for certain if that is the correct decision or not.
The Ukrainian liberation of Kherson has been yet another success on the side of the defenders in the war, though it is also easy to assume it will lead to something of a pause on the southern part of the frontline. The withdrawal to the left bank of the Dnipro – even if the losses to heavy equipment are on the scale expected – will still put the battered Russian forces behind one of the more formidable natural obstacles in Europe, and any Ukrainian assault over the river will require either serious amphibious equipment, a lot of luck and daring, or preferably both. The alternative for a continued offensive in the direction of either Crimea or the Sea of Azov is to do so east of where the river turn north and head down the Zaporizhzhia – Melitopol axis.
However, Ukraine just might have found an alternative option. Or at least they might be pretending to have done so, which at the end of the day might in fact prove more or less as useful.
Reports have namely come in that the Ukrainian forces have landed on the Kinburn peninsula, a narrow peninsula stretching out to the west and forming the southernmost part of the Dniprovska gulf, which sees the river outlet situated in the easternmost end of the gulf. Exactly what is happening is somewhat open, but there seem to be Ukrainian light troops on the move, with Herois’ke being reported as having been liberated. And it is a development that causes some major headaches for the Russians. The obvious one is that we have Ukrainians on the left bank of the Dnipro, something that they very much would prefer not to be the case in the south. If the Ukrainian really are in Herois’ke to stay, it start to open up alternatives.
From the peninsula it is roughly 60 km in a straight line to Olesjky and the southern end of the Antonovskiy Bridge. The bridge is seriously battered, but if the Ukrainians can secure both bridgeheads it is still likely the easiest location to set up a functioning logistics train over the southern stretches of the Dnipro. And coming from southwest would likely flank the Russian positions, as it is safe to assume that these are oriented towards the river banks. An even bolder option which really would get Kremlin worked up is if Ukrainian soldiers started pouring out of the peninsula eastwards, where it is just 130 km to Armjansk and Crimea.
Now, wars have a tendency to be far more complex than just drawing arrows on a map. If Ukraine want to break out of the peninsula with any kind of force, they first need to get it over there, then supply it over the water and by a single road, while advancing along a narrow front which spans at maximum approximately five kilometers across. The Canadian advance on Beveland during the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944 is a good example of the issues that can be expected – though in that case it was an attacker trying to enter a peninsula along a narrow front. As such, is a Ukrainian offensive here even a theoretical possibility?
It might be, depending on a number of factors. If the Russian forces in the region are second- and third-tier garrison forces without much in the way of tactical and operational mobility a quick Ukrainian offensive might gather enough momentum to sweep them away. Some have argued that the Ukrainians can’t go on the offensive without armoured or mechanised units, but in this case against an enemy that likely hasn’t had time to entrench themselves the ability to operate quickly and with a limited demand on the stretched supply lines might make light infantry a more interesting option. Infantry certainly is able to conduct offensive operations as demonstrated throughout history in general and this conflict in particular, especially if distances are manageable and the indirect fire support is plentiful. And that’s another interesting issue about Kinburn – the Ukrainian artillery doesn’t have to cross the water to be able to provide fire support. Rather it is possible to stand on the northern shore of the gulf and support the advancing troops for quite some time, including until the frontline would have been pushed well enough east that a supply node in the westernmost part of the peninsula would be relatively safe. This is a huge factor when looking at what kind of supplies Ukraine would have to be able to ferry across the bay to be able to keep going forward.
Another key detail which the possible operation again highlights is the relatively sparse nature of the battlefield. The number of troops involved is huge for a European post-WWII conflict, but so is the length of the frontline. If the Ukrainian light infantry starts moving quickly in gaps behind the frontline, the Russians will have to take action. And that might be the whole point. If Russia starts to shift serious forces south, that might open up possibilities on other fronst, such as finding a nice less-than-well-guarded position for a river crossing. As such, operating against Kinburn might be a fixing attack, or even just a raid in which a limited unit strikes terror and wait for the Russian tanks to come rumbling down the road, before slipping away back over the sea.
It remains to be seen what Ukraine plans to do with the operation, if there in fact is an operation ongoing at all which so far isn’t completely confirmed. Still, it does seem to indicate that the Ukrainian counteroffensive hasn’t run out off steam just yet, and that they want to capitalise on the momentum in some form or another. It is even possible that the Ukrainians themselves hasn’t decided on the fate of the landing just yet, planning to press the move in case Russia doesn’t respond or then retreat from Kinburn and attack elsewhere in case Russia shifts serious numbers of troops south. In any case this further seem to disprove the somewhat strange notion that the winter would lead to a stop in offensive operations. People living in places where winter occur annually usually have methods to keep performing even if the temperature drops, and as long as other factors doesn’t come into play (such as e.g. ammunition shortages following the fall offensives) winter often can provide better conditions for offensive operations than spring or fall.
The massed attacks on Ukraine today again raises the question about different approaches to managing the long-range ballistic and cruise missile threat, and while I don’t claim to have written the book on the issue, I did write a chapter with that headline for a Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) report a few years ago. As such, I have given the topic some thought. The bottom line is, it’s difficult and there’s no single answer.
To begin with, we need to differentiate between ballistic missiles such as Iskanders which are really difficult to shoot down, and cruise missiles which fly towards the target as (often small) unmanned aircraft. While a number of ground-based air defence systems are able to target at least some ballistic missiles, these are of the high-end (and as such expensive) kind, and their coverage against ballistic missiles is significantly smaller than against other flying things due to the ballistic missiles approaching their targets more or less vertically at extreme speeds.
Cruise missiles are easier targets. They come in different shapes and sizes, and rely on a combination of small size, speed, and in some cases stealth and/or electronic countermeasures to avoid interception. However, the most common defensive measure of cruise missiles is the rather straightforward method of keeping low. Flying at low altitude means that the window ground-based systems have to acquire and target them is low, and the problem is further emphasised if the air defence battery is set up in terrain such as forests, hills, or urban areas. But everything is relative. The high cruising speed is still subsonic for the majority of systems, meaning that few missiles are travelling at higher speeds than fighters or strike aircraft do. The size is small compared to fighters, but still comparable to, or larger than, many drones. As such, to make a complex question overly simple – if an air defence system is able to counter fighters and drones, cruise missiles aren’t out of reach. The most extreme version of this is evident in a widely circulated video shot today which appears to show an old Igla MANPADS used to take down a cruise missile.
#Ukraine: Not all of the cruise missiles fired into Ukraine from Russian aircraft and ships hit their target- here we see extremely rare footage of Igla MANPADS being used to take down a Russian missile on its way to the target. pic.twitter.com/zzajBZljnq
While this is an extreme case, it also illustrate the point well. Note that the shooter has ample time to figure out what is happening and set up the shot in the flat and open terrain.
The best counter to cruise missiles is however not old MANPADS nor top-of-the-line systems such as Patriot or SAMP/T. Rather it is modern medium-range systems, with NASAMS being the obvious choice here due to Ukrainian familiarity with the system. A number of other systems such as the CAMM would also fit the bill. The key detail is that these provide greater number for a given cost compared to more high-end ones. And when it comes to adding coverage, the number of batteries will always matter more than the range of individual systems. This is of even greater importance in Ukraine’s situation, as the country is large and with Russia resorting to terror bombings the number of potential targets is huge.
However, that is not to say that other air defence systems aren’t of interest to Ukraine. Getting shorter-ranged systems or older ones will free up the more capable ones to the counter-missile mission. With the drone threat also having ticked up recently with the supply of Iranian systems, it is evident that all kinds of air defence systems are extremely valuable to Ukraine for the time being.
Another way to kinetically ensure that missiles aren’t raining down over Ukraine is to hit the systems launching these. This include Russian strike and bomber aircraft, naval vessels including submarines, and launch vehicles such as Iskander units. Obviously, hitting airfields, maritime infrastructure, missile storage sites, and so forth will also achieve the desired effect. Many of these targets are however situated deep inside Russia, and as such Ukraine have difficulties reaching these both due to the lack of suitable weapon systems as well as due to reported Western restrictions on using Western supplied weaponry to reach targets on Russian soil. At this stage of the conflict, providing suitable weapons for Ukrainian long-range strikes on military targets deep inside Russia should be a no-brainer.
But getting complete cover will always be prohibitively expensive and require more resources than Ukraine or anyone else would have available. As such a big part of the answer is usually dispersion, fortification, and creating redundant systems, all of which are naturally more relevant against an enemy actually trying to hit something useful rather than just trying to kill civilians. As such, the real way to stop Russian missiles will be a Ukrainian victory. This will require stepping up support in a number of areas. This includes more of what has already been delivered, including both weapons and financial aid. However, it is also high time to supply new capabilities. This includes finally getting Ukraine those Leopards, as well as starting training on modern western multirole fighters. The F-16 is the obvious candidate, and while it could provide a measure of defence against cruise missiles, the big deal is the general ability to pound targets on the ground with modern weaponry and drastically increase the Ukrainian ability to defend their skies from enemy fighters and helicopters. Because as the war currently sits, the Russian strategy seems largely to be to burn everything they can’t have down to the ground, and the sooner we’ll take the matches from the arsonist, the less damage he’ll be able to cause.
With the war in Ukraine looking nowhere near resolved and both sides apparently gearing up for the next round of fighting, one thing is clear.
Finland could do more.
This is true for a number of cases, including sanctions on people, goods, and companies, as well as for medical aid through both transporting Ukrainians here for healthcare and supplying equipment to Ukraine, but this blog being this blog, let’s focus on heavy weapons.
There’s a list of caveats long as seven years of famine since much of the details rest on classified information which I don’t have access to – a fact which incidentally is a reason why I am able to write this text – but the idea that Finland can’t supply more equipment is false.
It should be noted that any armed force could always do with more equipment and troops, and it is an almost universal truth that all forces faced with a serious war have experienced shortages in weapons and ammunition – in particular items seeing heavy use such as artillery rounds and expensive items such as guided munitions and advanced systems. Any defence force budget and stocks of equipment and ammunition are the outcome of an analysis leading to what is felt to be an acceptable risk, i.e. at what stage is deterrence and combat capability credible without the defence budget putting undue pressure on the national budget.
This equation is never straightforward, and constantly changes. At the same time, the changes might come faster than it is possible to course correct (i.e. things get worse quicker than industry can supply more stuff or more troops can be trained), meaning that it will require foresight and careful balancing. However, at times it will also require risk-taking, as is evident by the Swedish support to Finland during the Winter War which saw Sweden send significant amounts of their then rather small (and often aged) pool of equipment as well as volunteers, and a large part of their air force to Finland. This was done not because they wouldn’t have been needed at home, but because the risk calculation favoured it:
A Soviet victory would seriously have worsened Sweden’s geopolitical situation.
There probably was at least a small window of time before any of the major powers would attack Sweden.
There were more equipment on order that hopefully would be delivered and pressed into service during that window of time.
…and while international relations realists won’t like this, supporting the democracy against the dictatorship is the morally right thing to do.
While the Winter War-analogies are getting tiring already, I will argue Finland is seeing a very similar situation as Sweden saw then. With one crucial exception, our ground force are in the best shape they’ve been in during peacetime (Lt.Gen. Hulkko said since the end of WWII, but I’d argue that they weren’t better in the 1918 to 1939-period either). That we at this stage wouldn’t be able to spare more than 2,500 old AKM-clones, 60 rounds to each of these, and 1,500 M72A5 LAWs does sound empty and counterproductive from a grand strategy point of view.
Granted, I fully understand that if we ask people within the defence forces they might very well argue that if we aren’t to diminish the combat capability of the FDF there isn’t much to spare, and the argument that countries that doesn’t share a long land border with Russia are better positioned to take those kinds of risks at this stage does hold true. The officers, NCOs, and civilians of the Finnish Defence Forces can be expected to answer honestly when asked regarding what is best for Finland’s military defence, and as the current crisis shows many of the choices made in this regards over the years have been correct.
However, that is not the question in this case.
Rather it is what would be the most beneficial outcome for Finnish national security as a whole, understanding both the added risks involved as well as the importance of Ukrainian successes for Finland as a nation. As such while the question will eventually land on the table of the MoD and the defence forces, the question of whether we can afford to send more aid is first and foremost one for the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.
So what are the areas where we could take calculated risks to provide more aid to the Ukrainians?
152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B (152K89)
Finland has made away with almost all Soviet-calibre systems from the artillery (we will get around to the other exceptions shortly), but one system stands out: the sole heavy guns in the Finnish arsenal that aren’t 155 mm ones, namely the 152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B. A single battalion of 24 guns is found on strength under the local designation 152K89.
Finland has been retiring a number of heavy batteries in recent times, mainly older converted 152 mm ones and all 130 mm M-46 (130 K 54), but the Finnish artillery is still very strong by European standards, and having a single battalion operate a unique calibre is an “interesting” choice from a wartime point of view. The guns are most probably excellent for training purposes, but it is still hard to not see them as having a limited value in wartime. In addition, heavy guns is one of the places where Finland has the opportunity to cover any transfers relatively quickly, with there being open options to acquire 38 additional K9 Moukari self-propelled 155 mm guns (options for 10 of the original 48 having already been exercised).
With the 2A36 already being in widespread Ukrainian service, Janes listing 287 in service in 2019-2020 (at least nine having been lost in the war), these could be put into Ukrainian service immediately without additional training required. It also seems possible that the system is in fact a key capability for Ukraine in that it can be used to fire laser-guided shells, and the locally developed Kvitnyk (often transcribed Kvitnik, but Ukroboronprom uses the ‘y’ in their marketing) being a prime suspect behind videos in which Ukrainians reportedly fire artillery that hit single vehicles with high accuracy.
All in all, shipping the last 152 mm guns to Ukraine together with whatever stocks of heavy Soviet-calibre rounds we have left should be a no-brainer. I also believe – though I am not 100% certain – that these are bought directly from the Soviet stocks and are not ex-DDR guns, and as such the export should be politically straightforward (in case anyone is unclear, we do not ask permission from Moscow to send these to Ukraine, in case they want to make a mess, we point to the fact that the war itself is illegal and we have a responsibility to support the defender).
122 mm D-30 (122H63)
The other Soviet-calibre gun in Finnish service is the 122 mm light howitzer which is found both in the shape of both the self-propelled 2S1 Gvozdika as well as the towed D-30. The 2S1 is recently modified to the 112PSH74M-standard and found in somewhat limited numbers, with four battalions – 74 guns in total – being available to provide indirect fire to mobile units. Shipping away any one of these would likely leave some of the key wartime units without organic fire support that is able to keep up with the unit they are supporting, leaving us in a bad spot (note that more or less all of this is speculation, as the wartime OOB and TOE are all classified). However, the towed D-30 is available in significant numbers and generally assumed to be assigned to less-important units. With the risk of getting a lot of angry fan mail from people who will explain that a 122 mm howitzer is not the same as a mortar, some of these are likely local units where indirect fire isn’t a key requirement (instead focus being on rear-guard duties and anti-SOF missions) and you could trade away some weapons for 120 mm or even 81 mm mortars. It obviously will mean a less capable unit, but as discussed above, the geostrategic considerations aren’t guided solely by what makes the FDF as capable as possible.
How many D-30s and how many rounds for these could be spared is an open question, but as the system is already in Ukrainian use even small batches are useful additions. A number of the guns in service are ex-DDR ones, and as such will need German approval, something which the Estonians already have ensured there is a precedent for.
122 mm RM-70/85 (122RAKH89)
The 122 mm light multiple rocket launch system RM-70/85 is the Finnish light rocket system of choice. The system is easily mistaken for the Soviet Grad-system, and uses the same rockets, but it is in fact of Czechoslovak origin. The Czech republic is reported to already have shipped at least 20 launchers, and with ability to share munitions with the BM-21 Grad these are relatively easy to integrate even if the exact versions differ somewhat. Does Finland have any to spare? These are certainly more difficult to replace than the Giatsint and aren’t available in the numbers of the D-30, but it should be noted that Finland apparently recently has been looking at a possible replacement system.
Okay, this caught me a bit by surprise. Swedish #artillery-people have been to Israel for a live-fire demo of loitering munitions and rocket artillery, but based on the flags of the video so have the Finnish ones as well! #turpo=#säkpolhttps://t.co/YnQQWXFnm6
The delivery time for new launchers is anyone’s guess, but if a swift deal can be made with the Israelis this might be the time to get rid off at least some RM-70s, or if that is deemed impossible then at least ship some rockets – a six-vehicle battery will do away with 240 rockets in a single salvo, so it does seem like a safe bet that Ukraine is interested in getting any 122 mm rockets they can find for their current launchers.
RBS 15SF-III (MTO 85M)
Speaking of quick deals with the Israelis, the current heavy anti-ship missile of the Finnish Navy is the Saab RBS 15 in the somewhat unique Finnish SF-III version (most likely this is a somewhat hotter RBS 15 Mk. II). These are already on their way out with the Gabriel V being inbound as the PTO 2020. Among the systems being replaced are truck-mounted batteries, which would be an excellent complement to the apparently rather low number of Neptune-batteries in Ukrainian service for the sea denial and coastal defence missions.
The PTO 2020 will in the first phase replace the ship-launched systems aboard the Hamina-class FAC as part of their MLU, but in the next phase they will also replace the truck-mounted ones. While not having access to the shore-based systems for a while would be a significant issue for the Navy, this might be another case of us simply having to accept a temporary capability gap in order to ensure Ukraine has the capabilities they need. A caveat here is that if the stories about the UK sending Harpoons is correct, the RBS 15 might not make much of a difference, but as the latest angle seem to be that the UK is sending some other (i.e. lighter and shorter-legged) anti-ship missile, the RBS 15 would certainly be needed alongside the apparently more limited domestic production (yes, I know the UK launchers aren’t ground-based versions, but that has never stopped a desperate country with a dedicated welder in their ranks). While the system would require some training, the fact that Ukraine already successfully operate corresponding domestic systems shows that they have the know-how to integrate and operate the system as well as a cadre of professionals around which to build up more anti-ship units. With Finland also currently enjoying a good reputation in the national security field in Sweden thanks to our more clear NATO-approach, it also seems likely the needed export permissions could be granted more easily than what would have been the case a month ago.
Buk-M1 (ItO 96)
Finland did operate the BUk-M1 system, having acquired it in the mid-90’s. According to most sources the system is now withdrawn for real and it is uncertain if any useable vehicles or missiles remain. One of the really low-hanging fruits of heavy weapons aid is to ship anything that remain in storage – be they spares, tools, or even functioning missiles and vehicles – over to Ukraine quicker than one can say ‘Novator’.
However, as said my understanding is that useful items might be few and far between, which brings us to the next point.
Crotale NG (ItO 90M)
Finland acquired 20 XA-180 equipped with radars, EO-sensors, and eight Crotale-missiles each in the early 90’s. Back in the 2004-2012 timespan these systems were modernised and brought up to what locally is known as the ITO 90M standard. These are still highly competent systems, and their mobile nature and ability to operate quasi-independently (a single vehicle can complete the whole kill chain, but for best effect you obviously want to use them as part of an integrated air defence system) means that they would be of serious value for the Ukrainian forces. The approximately 6,000 meter ceiling and up to 11 km range also means that they would outrange the STARStreak which with the exception of the single ex-Slovak S-300 battery is the heaviest air defence system so far exported to Ukraine during the war, and as such the Crotale would offer a welcome addition in both capability and numbers.
It should be acknowledged that these play a big role in Finnish ground-based air defences, despite their somewhat low numbers and lesser absolute capability compared to the NASAMS II. There are also few if any quick options when it comes to replacing them, and as such sending even a limited number of them to Ukraine need serious evaluation of the impact such a move would have in Finland and Ukraine respectively. But it is an alternative that I do feel ought to be on the table when discussing all options.
There are indeed other options as well. The Stinger is already in Ukrainian service and even small batches would likely be accepted with open arms. Anti-tank weapons might or might not be available as well. Mortars, both light and heavy, are found in serious numbers in the Finnish inventory, and it is difficult to see that all would be irreplaceable.
For heavier equipment, the Air Force is basically a no-go. There’s little use in sending small numbers of Hornets which would cause a serious dent in Finnish capability but which would be a dead-end for the long-term rejuvenation of the Ukrainian Air Force which really need to go down the F-16 (or possibly the F-15) route. For other aircraft, the Ukrainians are really better off just getting money and permission to go shopping than getting a Pilatus or two.
For the Navy, while sending two-three-four Rauma class FAC overland to Odesa in a covert operation would be an epic story worthy of the best naval small craft traditions of Finland, in practice cutting the Finnish anti-surface combat capability by 25-50% for a five-ten year period does not seem like a viable option. Better in that case to focus on the truck-based batteries.
Armour is also rather more difficult. The Leopards are too few in number to make a serious contribution for the trouble it would be to integrate them into the Ukrainian force without Finland in essence giving away half the armoured force. For the IFVs, going over to a CV 9030-only fleet would probably be everyone’s dream, but there is no quick way to achieve that, even if one would be prepared to throw significant amounts of money after it (that would also still leave a split IFV-fleet, as any CV 9030 rolling off the production line today would be vastly different compared to the Finnish ones currently in service, but of course they would still be more related than the current BMP-2 and the CV 9030 are). The BMP-2M/MD that could be transferred would also be significantly different compared to the ones currently in Ukrainian service, though obviously integrating them would be easier than say the Marders they have been trying to buy from Germany. As such, while a transfer of Soviet-designed armoured vehicles aren’t completely out of the question, it must be understood that any such move would leave the Finnish Defence Forces significantly weaker when it comes to the ability to conduct combat operations in general and offensive operations in particular.
As a finishing note, accepting the kind of risk we are talking about here – and at some point we will have to come around to the understanding that we have to accept greater risk-taking in order to further our national interests and national security – would be significantly easier if we were part of an alliance of western democracies that we would have conducted joint operational planning with and on whom we could rely on for support in case of war. Sending away a battalion worth of IFVs doesn’t sting half as much compared to what the situation is right now if one knew that a Swedish armoured brigade with British air support would immediately roll in over the border and take up positions in the defence of Finland until the transferred vehicles have been replaced.
In general, the ships contain a great deal of flammable material and appear to lack adequate damage-control features.
Those are the words of Eric Wertheim describing the Slava-class guided-missile cruisers in the 16th edition of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. Being second in size among the Russian surface combatants only to the massive Pyotr Veliky and her sister (also known as the Kirov- or Project 1144 ‘Orlan’-class), the Slava (or Project 1164 ‘Atlant’) was built during the later half of the 1970’s as squadron leaders with heavy anti-ship missiles to be able to fight and sink US carrier battle groups. Of a total of six planned vessels, three had entered service with the Soviet Navy and to this day has remained some of the most important Russian surface combatants – yet again highlighting the failure of post-Soviet Russia to build any surface combatant larger than a frigate. The three vessels operate one each in the three most important fleets – Marshal Ustinov in the Northern Fleet, Varyag in the Pacific Fleet, and leadship of the class Moskva (ex-Slava) in the Black Sea Fleet as the flagship of the fleet. Or rather, she did so until last night (ironically, all four were built in Ukraine, where today the fourth hull still rests in a half-finished state).
As of the time of writing little is known for certain. All sides seem to agree that a serious fire which also reached unspecified ammunition storages has caused the crew to abandon the ship during last night, and that’s about where the details start diverging. Ukrainian sources very early started talking about a successful strike using the homegrown R-360 Neptune anti-ship missile, two missiles which reportedly struck the vessel and caused the fire which lead to the vessel rapidly capsizing and sinking. The Russian version is that the vessel suffered a fire not related to any attack, and that the whole crew was evacuated with the vessel eventually sinking while under tow due to hull damage brought about by the stormy weather conditions. In a somewhat rare instance, it does seem that Russians indeed were somewhat honest and that the vessel might have been floating in a damaged state for quite a while, as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby earlier this afternoon (European time) described Moskva as “afloat but clearly damaged“.
As a side-note, this is the second warship named Moskva to sink in the Black Sea due to enemy action, the first having been a destroyer that hit a mine while being engaged by coastal artillery outside the Romanian coast in 1941.
But let’s start from the top and break down the scenarios involved. The Moskva as mentioned is fitted out to operate as a flagship, i.e. the command and control hub from which orders are given and the situational picture is kept up to date. While there are conflicting reports about whether Moskva has been operating in that role or whether the duty has been taken over by one of the modern frigates operating with the Black Sea Fleet, Shashank Joshi of The Economist got a quote indicating that shed indeed did function as the flagship.
With the Ukrainian Navy all but non-existent, the value of the sixteen huge P-500 Bazalt anti-ship missiles found along the sides of the superstructure has been rather limited in the war (there are reports that they would have upgraded to the P-1000 Vulcan, but most seem to agree that is not the case. Anyhow, as there are no targets for them currently in the Black Sea, the difference at this point is largely academic). The Moskva has however been active in other roles, including being the ship on the receiving end of the famous “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”-radio message over at Snake Island – which it then responded to by blasting the island with the deck gun. Besides providing naval gunfire support, the vessel is also equipped with a three-tiered air defence that although old is still of value. The most serious of these systems are the S-300F Fort long-range system which sport 64 5V55RM semi-active radar homing missiles (the system is called Rif in the export version). In essence, the system roughly corresponds to the ground-based S-300PS/PM and was introduced in the mid-80’s. As such, it is a far cry from the S-400 batteries found ashore today, but still longer-ranged than the otherwise significantly more modern 3S90M Shtil-1 system and its 9M317M missiles found aboard the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates of the fleet (Shtil-1 can roughly be thought of as a naval version of the Buk-M2E system). For closer defence, it operates the equally old Osa-M system sporting twin-rail launchers of the original 9M33-family of missiles (SA-8A GECKO in NATO-parlance). The short range-defence is then handled by the 130 mm twin AK-130 main gun and six 30 mm AK-630 close-in weapons systems. There are also torpedoes and anti-submarine rockets, which in this case are of even lesser use than the Bazalt.
An interesting detail is that there are rumours around a Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 appearing in the area to ‘distract’ the Moskva during the attack. In fact, it is not at all a far-fetched idea. The major issue of the S-300F compared to newer systems is the limited ability to track multiple targets. The system can intercept up to 6 targets at a time, but only within a 60° sector as the system is tied to a single 3R-41 Volna (TOP DOME) radar. Considering the additional circumstances of the vessel having sustained operations on wartime footing for weeks and it being a stormy night, the crew handling the air defence systems becoming fixated on a drone is entirely possible, especially as sea-skimming missiles would have been even harder to detect on the radar than usual among the low-altitude clutter caused by the stormy conditions. The TB2 might certainly have been combining the distraction role with that of feeding position date of the vessel back to the firing battery (let’s remember that a number of the Bayraktars are operated by the Navy). Some really fancy accounts are even saying that the Bayraktar would have taken out the air defence radars before the sea-skimmers came in, but even if theoretically possible I find it extremely unlikely. Let’s remember that the technology level of the air defences is roughly corresponding to the most modern air defence systems the Royal Navy vessels that went to the Falklands back in 1982 were sporting, and the issues they had with picking up Exocet missiles in time are well-known. The shorter-range systems should in theory have been able to intercept the missiles, but there are several explanations as to why they didn’t do so, ranging from poor performance through to not being active due to the crew underestimating the threat from anti-ship missiles (both of which have earlier lead to wartime losses for different navies).
As mentioned the weapon reportedly used by the Ukrainians was the home-developed R-350 Neptune, somewhat related to/based upon the Russian Kh-35 Uran. As such, it is a weapon largely comparable to many western weapons, being subsonic, sporting active radar-homing, and a warhead in the 150 kg class. Approaching the target at very low-level, it is difficult to detect, and it would not be surprising if yesterday was close to the limit when it comes to how bad weather it can operate in (you don’t want to fly lower than the maximum wave height). A 150 kg warhead (or two) won’t sink a cruiser, but there are a number of other factors to take into account, including the possibility of starting a fire – as was alluded to in the opening quote and which was the case with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands – as well as the explosive potential of the Bazalts lined up along the side of the vessel. Both the Ukrainian and Russian versions talk about a fire threatening the ammunition storage, which is a somewhat vague term for a vessel were several key systems lack reloads and all missiles are stored launch-ready. The batteries are expected to have their own Mineral-U mobile radars which could have been the system feeding engagement data, and as said the Bayraktar might have been involved as well.
Notable for the Neptune is that it has been absent during the early part of the war despite there being ample targets. One possibility is simply that there are too few missiles to use them against low-value targets or targets where the fire control data wasn’t unambiguous. It is also possible that these were the first missiles available to the battery, as there had been reports that deliveries had slipped a year from 2021 to this spring. If so, someone has likely been working around the clock since February to get the weapons ready, and if this really was their debut, it sure was quite something!
But was it really a missile strike?
While I questioned whether the Tapir lost earlier was caused by enemy action or just an accident, and while the Russian Navy indeed is no stranger to accidents, there are a few things here that leads me to believe the missile strike scenario is the more likely one in this case. The whole scenario does seem plausible, including the weapons used, the usage of environmental conditions and potentially a drone to mask the attack, the choice of target, and so forth. But the most important indication is the statement by western sources that other Russian vessels have turned south to put a greater distance between themselves and the angry coastline. That would not be the expected reaction in case the Russian commanders thought it an accident.
So how big a loss is this to the Russian war effort?
That impact on the war effort depends very much on your point of view. As mentioned there really are no Ukrainian naval vessels operational, and as such the Russian sea lines are not threatened. The utility of the vessel in the current war -which at the end of the day very much is a land war with a maritime flank – is also somewhat limited compared to the more modern frigates and corvettes that are able to fire land-attack versions of the Kalibr cruise missiles. On the flip-side, the Ukrainians have likely shaken the Russian Navy seriously, and any plans on an amphibious landing near Odesa have likely been shelved permanently. Looking 40 years back into history, the similarities to the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano are astonishing, with both vessels in surprise attacks being put out of action, both serving as the flagship of their respective forces, both being old but still packing a serious punch, and both likely having an impact on morale and operating procedures that extend well beyond the loss of their individual combat capability. The vessels are also surprisingly evenly matched in size, with the Moskva being just under a meter longer and the Belgrano being just a bit heavier in displacement. Which one you will hand the dubious honour of being the largest naval vessel sunk since 1945 largely depends on your metrics, but if pressed I’d say the Argentinians still have it.
In more detail the lack of the S-300F air defence system is felt, but not overly much. Again, it had a range advantage compared to the more modern systems on some of the other vessels, but otherwise it was far from modern. The reduction in the number of combat capable hulls is likely to be felt more severely, with just three frigates (two modern), two corvettes, and three OPVs remaining according to one source. With the blockade line having been pushed further south, it also means that naval gunfire support is unlikely to happen and due to the shape of the Ukrainian coast and the Black Sea the blockade line will be longer, further increasing the amount of real estate any single vessel will have to keep its eyes on.
This also potentially open up the possibility to do something about the illegal blockade Russia is maintaining in the Black Sea. In short, you are allowed to blockade your enemy during war, but there are some set rules for how to go about doing so. One of these is that you are supposed to declare the blockade, something Russia hasn’t done. In the grand scheme of things, the undeclared blockade likely ranks as one of Russia’s lesser war crimes, but it is still something, and crucially (my understanding is) that the undeclared nature would give the West the possibility to seize the opportunity and sail some serious vessels into Odesa as a freedom of navigation operation.
These so called FONOPS to ensure that the rules regarding free use of the sea are kept have mostly been associated with China in recent years, but as Charly Salonius-Pasternak pointed out a while back, a FONOPS into Odesa would certainly be a possibility. And as a FONOPS-squadron preferably would have the firepower to take down the adversaries in case they get any ideas, this is one area in which the loss of the Moskva’s Bazalt-missiles would be felt. Compared to e.g. the suggested no-fly zone over Ukraine, a squadron of western destroyers and frigates loudly declaring their intention and sailing into Odesa would probably constitute a lesser risk of escalation into nuclear war even in the case things would go bad and NATO and Russian forces would start killing each other – the sea just tend to play that kind of a role in international politics where a crisis that happens on land is always more serious than one that takes place on open water. The propaganda value for the Ukrainians and the further loss of face of the Russian Black Sea Fleet would be of measurable value, and the vessels staying in Odesa for a few weeks would significantly lessen the threat of strikes or offensive operations against the port, freeing up Ukrainian resources to the drive on Kherson. It would however require more political bravery than the countries with competent enough vessels have so far been able to muster, and as such we are unlikely to it see it any time soon.
But even if the FONOPS stays a dream, the loss of Moskva adds yet another item to the long list of Russian failures and losses in this war. With a crew usually numbering close to 500 (over 500 if including the additional staff when working in the flagship role) this might turn out to be the most serious single loss of manpower of the Russian Armed Forces so far in the war if it turns out the Russian story of the whole crew having been evacuated was wishful thinking. The symbolic value of Ukraine destroying Moscow is also not lost on anyone, and as noted the operations by the rest of the Black Sea Fleet can be expected to become more limited.
And finally, the symbolic value of getting revenge for the occupation of Snake Island is very real.
As there’s quite a lot happening in Ukraine at the moment, several things of which deserve a bit deeper analysis than is fitting to a Twitter-thread, I decided to do a short (no, I’m not kidding anyone but myself) post on three topics from the past week: the helicopter strike on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, the ability of Russia to replace losses in equipment (in particular tanks), and the idea of shipping advanced Western systems to Ukraine (in particular fighters and air defence systems).
The helicopter strike in Belgorod
One of the more spectacular single events of the past week was without a doubt the dawn raid on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, a city sitting just opposite the Russian border from Kharkiv.
What we more or less know is that during the dawn of April 1 two Mi-24 (NATO-codename HIND) struck a fuel depot in eastern Belgorod with S-8 rockets, before then rapidly exiting the area at very low level. A number of storage tanks burst into flames.
That is basically what we know for certain. The storage depot has been geolocated both using traditional means as well as through NASA’s FIRMS fire monitoring satellites. The depot is apparently operated by Rosneft’s subsidiary AO Belgorodnefteprodukt, and hold 22 larger and five smaller storage tanks. TASS helpfully reported the size of the larger tanks, which come in at 2,000 cubic meters each, meaning that just the 22 larger tanks can store 44,000 cubic meters (i.e. 44 million litres) of fuel, and of these eight were on fire meaning a loss of 16,000 cubic meters of storage capacity as well as any fuel currently stored inside them. Other damage, such as e.g. to transfer lines, pumps, and so forth, are more difficult to asses, but one theory is that the first helicopter did not aim for the tanks but for what looks like it could potentially be the main office building on the site. Another possibility is that it simply didn’t hit anything as flammable as the second helicopter did.
In any case, the target is of strategic value to Russia. As is well-known, the Russian offensive has suffered from a lack of of supplies in general, and fuel is no exception. While the Belgorod depot is a civilian one – to the extent we can differ between civilian and state/military infrastructure in Russia – the location of Belgorod at the infrastructure node opposite Kharkiv means that it can be expected to have played a role in trying to fuel the stalled offensive on Kharkiv. This clearly was a target of strategic importance, and will hurt the ability of the Russian forces in the greater Kharkiv-region to conduct operations – be they offensive or defensive. Some have compared this to the Doolittle raid of 1942, but in truth this is rather different as there seems to have been serious material damage done in Belgorod which will have some kind of effect on the continued Kharkiv-campaign.
A short interlude: there has been some discussion that the strike would have been a false flag-operation by Russian Mi-24s to somehow stir up further hatred against Ukraine, and while it can’t be ruled out, I sincerely doubt it. To begin with, the enemy being able to strike strategic target on Russian soil after the Kremlin has declared that the Ukrainian air assets are wiped out and Russia enjoys total control of the skies isn’t exactly helpful for the Russian propaganda effort. If you really want to launch a false flag operation, going after something more war crime-y would also help (such as hitting a school or similar, we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond killing own civilians, and if they would be averse to own losses they could have struck early enough that no people would have been present).
The usage of helicopters is interesting. Most often these kinds of interdiction strikes are left to fixed-wing aircraft or long-range missiles, but there are instances of helicopters being successfully used to carry out long-range strikes – the most famous being the raid by AH-64 Apaches of Task Force Normandy firing the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm. While helicopters often are lamented as being vulnerable on the modern battlefield – and the conflict so far has indeed seen a number of losses – they are significantly more difficult to kill than many expect, in particular if used at speed and at low level. Many of the Russian helicopters lost have been operating at surprisingly high altitude, making them easily visible (and thereby targetable by air defences). Contrary to that, the Mi-24s seems to have left the area at tree-top height. This would give significantly less time for any air defences to react, and would make it extremely hard for ground-based radars to pick up the helicopters. Still, the complete inability of the Russian air defences to hunt them down is telling, as a layered air defence with sensors, people on the ground reporting observations, fighters on alert, and crucially at least some kind of close-range air defences around strategic targets (such as a fuel depot 60 km from the frontline…) should be able to put at least some amount of lead into the air. One possible explanation is people observing the helicopters being hesitant to fire or report them onwards for fear of causing a friendly fire incident, which is an ironic outcome of having air superiority but not supremacy.
While this isn’t the first strike on Russian territory during the war – we’ve seen e.g. the Millerovo air base having been struck by what presumably was a Tochka-U ballistic missile – this does seem to be the first air raid on Russian territory since the Korean War. It also seems to have been executed close to perfection, with a somewhat unconventional but extremely effective plattform being chosen to perform a surprise lightning raid against a target of real strategic value, without causing any serious collateral damage. The last part is important, as the Russian political leadership has accused Ukraine of escalating, a statement that is difficult to take seriously given that it would mean a Ukrainian limited strike on a militarily relevant target is the issue here when Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, and has followed up by systematically targeting civilian infrastructure – including hospitals and agreed upon humanitarian convoys and corridors of safe passage – as well as the widespread raping and looting done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Covering the losses
There has been some discussion surrounding the significant losses to Russian equipment, but quite a few have pointed to the vast size of the Russian Armed Forces as providing a healthy equipment pool from which to draw troop reinforcements as long as the personnel losses can be covered – and notable is that e.g. when it comes to tank losses approximately half the confirmed losses are destroyed or damaged, with the rest being captured or damaged, something which might indicate that the equipment losses are quite a bit worse than the personnel losses.
However, that does overlook the sheer scope of the equipment losses suffered. A good place to start is looking at the tank losses, as the tank is the key offensive weapon system in case Russia plan on succeeding with their regrouping and upcoming Donbas-offensive.
The exact number of operational Russian tanks in service is obviously somewhat obscure. However, there does seem to be a convergence around a number in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. A rather solid estimate from 2019 is this one which is based on the numbers from IISS, which list 2,750 tanks. An interesting detail is that pro-Kremlin “suspicious information operation” (in the words of Jessikka Aro) SouthFront lands extremely close, listing 2,609 tanks in combat units in 2021 (note that there can be operational tank in other places than combat units, such as schools or research units, which might explain why the number is lower). Both also list roughly half of the tanks as being modern versions (T-72B3 in all versions, T-90A and M, as well as T-80BVM), with the rest being older T-72 versions and T-80BV/U. In addition, there is a sizeable amount of tanks in long-term storage, let’s get back to them.
To start with the losses, Oryx lists 389 destroyed, damaged, abandoned, and captured tanks. As such, that represent 14.1 % of the operational tank force if we stick with the IISS numbers (which we will do for the rest of this post). Of course, that is bound to be somewhat off, due to a number of things. One is that the Russian tank force has not been staying stagnant since 2019 – e.g. last year TASS published a report that 65 T-90M “would be” (note future tense) handed over to the Army during that year. Another is that the tanks operated by the so called People’s Republics in Donbas aren’t included in the Russian total. However, these are likely to be balanced out against not all losses being confirmed, and at the end of the day we are looking for a trend rather than a bean count.
An interesting detail with the confirmed losses is that they match the 1:1 ratio of modern tanks, with 165 of the 345 identified tanks lost being modern ones, i.e. 47.8 % to be precise. Going back to the 14.1 % of operational tanks having been lost, for the individual tanks versions things are somewhat more varied. The T-90 family has so far suffered relatively small losses, with just 4.9 % of the operational force having been knocked out.
Let’s pause for a while and think about that statement. The modern tank that has fared best has seen roughly one in twenty of the total operational force available in 2019 having been either destroyed, damaged, or otherwise left on the battlefield, and all that in just over a month of fighting. That is bad.
For the others the issues are worse. The exact number of T-80BVM is not listed by IISS, but going from SouthFront we are looking at 72 in operational combat units. With 18 lost, that’s a solid 25 %, or one in four. The reason is obviously unclear at this point in time, it might just be that we are seeing T-80BVM units in areas from where there are lots of images, but we also have reports that e.g. the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (Pechenga) which is a prolific user of the upgraded version has been extremely hard hit around Kharkiv.
The T-72B3 in all versions fare somewhere in between, with 10.8 % of the vehicles being lost. Again, it’s too soon to draw major conclusions about the survivability of the T-90 compared to the T-80BVM or T-72B3, but it is crucial to note that among the most modern Russian tanks available, we are seeing losses in excess of one in ten operational tank. Even if a number of crews have dismounted and marched back to Russia ready to grab a new tank and get back into the fray, that’s not something even a force of Russia’s size will just shrug off.
But what about the tanks in storage? Most reports place the number of tanks in storage at approximately 10,000 (I will argue that the nice roundness of the figure says something about how accurate it is, but it gives us something to work with, and again, we are looking for trends, not individual tanks). However, obviously the tanks in reserve are mainly older versions, and pulling out a T-72A from storage to replace a T-72B3 or a T-80U to replace a T-80BVM will mean a loss of capability in absolute terms.
There is however an argument that on the surface makes sense, that as the Ukrainians have had no issues penetrating the most modern tanks the increased protection these sport is in fact of limited practical value, and that the increased firepower (gun, ammunition, sights, gun handling, FCS, …) they have is of limited value as there has seemingly been relatively little tank versus tank combat and the Ukrainian armed force is also mainly made up of older tanks (the vast majority of identified losses so far being the 1985-vintage 1-64BV with the rather dated Kontakt-1 ERA “bricks”). As such, the 10,000 tanks in reserve are very much valid replacements for the losses
However, there is a number of issues with that line of reasoning. To begin with, while a tank has splendid mobility, firepower, and protection – the features which has meant that tanks has dominated the battlefields of the world since at least the Second World War – there are obviously some drawback to being locked inside a tin can. One of them is situational awareness, which naturally is somewhat limited if you are in a vehicle compared to moving on foot. To fight this drawback, modern armoured fighting vehicles have an array of technology to help them, allowing them to fight at long distances and during night. It’s not a perfect solution, as we have seen in Ukraine it is still possible for infantry to sneak up on tanks not operating with their own infantry, but a modern sighting unit does provide a huge benefit compared to for example the 1K13-49 installed on the late 80’s versions of the T-72B, not to mention the kit fitted to the even older T-72A and related versions. And if you thought a tank with a modern thermal sight is vulnerable to infantry sneaking around, just wait until your main night vision device is an IR-searchlight. It might have been cutting edge in the Golan in 1973, but those days are long gone. Poor situational awareness gets you killed on the modern battlefield, and that is what you get with 80’s technology.
Similarly, while an NLAW or Javelin will make the same sized hole in a T-72A as in an T-72B3 (surprisingly often it turns out that it is a turret-ring sized hole), there are a lot of other weapons floating around on the Ukrainian battlefield. These include lighter weapons such versions of AT4 and LAW delivered from western sources, as well as a whole host of Soviet-designed weapons, all of which might or might not be able to take out an enemy tank depending on a number of different parameters in the engagement. However, one thing is clear, and that is that the likelihood of doing so significantly goes up with the age of the target. And in the best case, the target will be a tank built in the early 80’s lacking its ERA-blocks.
Because this is another major issue with the stored vehicles. Most pictures that have come out of Russian depots seems to indicate that the storage conditions often are less than optimal, with vehicles in several cases lacking pieces of removable equipment, and instead having a liberal amount of rust. Now, it is important to note that there is probably some amount of bias involved, as the facilities most visible on the web likely are those most poorly guarded, and as such likely not the most high-priority storage units. Still, anyone who has tried to take a machine into service that has been standing for a few years knows that it seldom is a straightforward task. So how many tanks could be pulled out of storage within say a month or two? No one knows, most likely not even the Russian general staff, but it is safe to assume that number is significantly lower than 10,000.
Obviously, Ukraine has similar issues with lost tanks being hard to replace, and Russia might certainly win a war of attrition. But the losses suffered right now are certainly on a scale that even if Russia would be able to supply trained crews to cover the personnel losses, the combat capability of the units will still suffer significantly.
The long game
This leads us on to the third topic: the Ukrainian requests for military equipment which grows fancier and fancier. At this stage, there are talk both about getting Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems, F-15 and F-16 fighters, as well as NSM anti-ship missiles.
The Ukrainian frustration is understandable, and there is no doubt that a few Patriot batteries with well-trained crews would make a significant impact on the battlefield. However, there are two major issues: delivery speed and training.
It is possible that Ukraine has reached a stage of the conflict where they can afford to pull units from the frontline for retraining, that’s something we see e.g. with the delivery of the Starstreak which included a (forced) training program before the system was delivered to the front. The issue, even allowing for the fact that in wartime you will accept higher risk-taking and longer working hours, will become even more pronounced as you move into higher and higher levels of complexity, and a long-range air defence battery or anti-ship missile battery are among the most complex individual systems in service today. Pulling an air defence battalion from the frontlines to re-equip with Patriot would mean them being out of service for a month at the very minimum, most likely more depending on the experience level of the unit in question as well as the acceptable level of proficiency after the training has been concluded. It might be that Ukraine sees this as an acceptable trade-off, especially as we’ve seen equipment losses to e.g. their S-300 batteries which might mean that they have trained crews without vehicles.
FIAF flew F-18 with metric system for few years. When we transfered from metric system, we also changed to english comms. You were safe in few weeks, but being effective tactically took several months.
The same is true for the fighter requests as well, where retraining of pilots would have to take time. Again, there are certainly corners to be cut when looking at this from the wartime versus peacetime angle, but even then miracles are difficult to achieve. Especially when realising that most everything is different in an F-16 compared to a MiG-29, down to how the human-machine-interface works and what kind of a doctrine the aircraft is built around to be as effective as possible (the same can be said about the discussion of supplying western-made tanks to Ukraine, but here the possible supply of stored T-72 of different versions is looking more promising if the political will is present).
This brings us to the other issue, namely that while older anti-tank systems (and some newer ones) are found in storage units across numerous countries in Europe and the US, modern high-end systems are rarely bought in significant numbers to begin with, and they are usually needed in service. Yes, I understand that “need” is a relative term, but few countries would be willing to send away significant numbers of their key systems if they aren’t able to get them replaced in a short time. And the delivery times for high-end systems is long.
Granted there F-16s available surplus in some numbers with e.g. Norway having recently retired its fleet, and the Ukrainians likely would not be upset with the aircraft having relatively few flight hours left. The famous US “boneyard” in Arizona also have a host of different aircraft that might be brought into service under more or less swift schedules. Operating a US fighter would also mean that there are munition stocks available, so if a completely new system is to be brought into Ukrainian service the F-16 – most likely the European MLU-standard – would be the prime candidate. That would however take vastly more time than the 2-3 weeks the Ukrainian Air Force talks about, not to mention such basic logistics tasks as getting the aircraft to a suitable base (most likely outside of Ukraine) and setting up some kind of training program there already taking some time. Considering the issues even with getting the Polish MiG-29s over to Ukraine and the lack of political will to do that, a Ukrainian F-16 conversion unit in Germany or Poland followed by ferry flights to Ukraine does seem like a dream at this stage, and one that would be hard-pressed to be achievable in anything less than a month from the moment all involved parties have signed the papers (though I will say that I can’t quite understand why the MiG-29s were felt to be an escalation compared to the numerous other systems provided).
There are obviously some middle ground to be achieved in some areas, with e.g. the Finnish RBS 15-batteries being replaced with the Gabriel within the next few years. If a quicker delivery schedule could be agreed upon and possibly even a Finnish NATO-membership allowing for additional naval firepower in the Gulf of Finland in case of war these might be freed up. It would be a significantly greater political commitment from both Finland and Sweden (as the original manufacturer) than what we have seen so far, but would also mean that Odesa would be vastly more secure and the Ukrainian forces could start thinking about some local sea denial missions close to the shore. Similarly, there are some older medium-range air defence systems in Europe that might be up for grabs that would offer at least comparable performance to what the Ukrainians currently have. However, even under the best of conditions none of these systems would have an impact on the battlefield during April, and this is in sharp contrast to the numerous simpler systems delivered.
This obviously brings us to the question of how long the war will take? If someone a month ago would not have taken the decision that it was worth shipping the Starstreak despite it being a month away from Ukrainian service, one more Mi-28UB would be flying around killing Ukrainians than what currently is the case. Similarly, any decision not taken today because a month is too long a delivery time might prove to have been faulty in a month from now if the war continues to rage on, and if nothing else Ukraine will indeed also need to rebuild its forces once the conflict is over. With the Russian attempt at a poorly executed lightning strike having stalled, switching to ensuring the Kremlin can’t win a war of attrition might certainly be the best strategic move the West can do right now, especially considering we do seem set for something of a calm before the storm as Russia tries to regroup forces to focus on more limited aims in the Donbas.
I have a hard time seeing Patriot, NASAMS, or F-15 deliveries to Ukraine right now, but we certainly should start looking at the systems a step above the Starstreak in complexity. Because this is starting to turn into a long one.
The biggest news from the front-line in Ukraine today is that the Russian Navy has lost one of its major landing ships, a Landing Ship Tank (LST) of the Project 1171 ‘Tapir’-class (NATO: ALLIGATOR). The vessel suffered a catastrophic fire in the port of Berdyansk, an Ukrainian port city approximately 60 km south-west along the shore from Mariupol. The Tapir-class is comparable to the more famous and somewhat newer Project 775 (NATO: ROPUCHA). Of the original 14 Tapirs built, most are decommissioned or in reserve, but two are found in the Black Sea Fleet and a third is in active in the Pacific Fleet. A good clip of the event is found below:
As mentioned the Tapir is old, dating from the mid-60’s, with the two Black Sea Fleet vessels having been commissioned in 1966 and 1968 respectively.
Exactly what caused the fire is unknown. Most reports mention a Ukrainian missile strike, which would be a Tochka-U. The missile system which in Russian service has been more or less fully replaced by the Iskander-M dates from Soviet times and reportedly has a CEP of 95 meters, meaning that you don’t aim for individual ships, but you could conceivably aim for a cluster of vessels tied up port-side together and wish for the best. This ‘fingers crossed’-tactic was apparently tried with some success against the Millerovo air base earlier during the war. Notable is that the Tochka-U can be equipped with a warhead sporting cluster munitions, which depending on your type of target could increase the odds of hitting something (though obviously the damage to whatever is hit would be less). The question has also been raised whether any Tochka-battery could have gotten within range of the port, considering the somewhat limited range of the system (120 km)? Again, lines on a map rarely tell the whole story, but e.g. the front suggested by the Finnish National Defence University would indicate that Berdyansk is within range.
Everyone’s favourite Turkish drone obviously also was included in the speculation, but the weapons used by the Bayraktar TB2 – the MAM-L – sport a very light warhead (the whole weapon tipping the scale at 22 kg). Of course, if you hit something volatile even a small warhead might do the trick, but getting a laser-guided weapon into the cargo hold (the most likely scenario if you are to start a fire with a light weapon) is rather hard due to a combination of factors (such as the discrepancy between the path followed by the laser beam and the bomb, as well as how trigonometry work when you lock a laser spot). Not impossible, but difficult.
There’s obviously also a number of other possible explanations, including Ukrainian special forces planting explosives or similar, but perhaps the most likely explanation is the boring one that a more or less overworked crew made a mistake that lead to a fire – an all too common event on vessels even without the added stress of being at war. Of course, being at war should also mean that your damage control crew is on rather high alert, especially if you sit within range of enemy ballistic missiles, but here again incompetence or humans being humans can’t be ruled out.
Alert readers might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned which vessel it was that turned into what I believe is the first combat loss of the Russian or Soviet Navy since U-956 sank USSR Deyatelny (ex-HMS Churchill) in January 1945. The reason for this is that both Tapirs of the Black Sea Fleet are possible candidates for the dubious honour. Orsk, the somewhat younger vessel, was seen on the location earlier, unloading BTR-82 armoured personnel carriers, most likely from a naval infantry brigade. However, there are also indications that she had already left the area and her sister Saratov – the lead vessel of the class – had taken her place at the quayside. She would reportedly have been carrying the munitions for the unit unloaded from Orsk earlier this week or late last week.
RU channels mentioned Saratov and checking Sentinel-2 shows no LSTs parked there on the 22nd. Orsk was there three days ago though
While I won’t make a definitive call at this stage, the Saratov-theory does make sense, and the fire which sport a number of secondary explosions also seem to fit a fire aboard a munitions vessel. A munitions-handling accident would also not be unheard of as a wartime fire-starter.
A Sentinel satellite did a pass over Berdyansk only a few hours after the port was hit. Looks like there is some damage to the infrastructure. pic.twitter.com/DGhTEwH0pf
Notable is that some port structures, possibly including oil storage on the quay and/or nearby cranes, also seem to have suffered damage. As did at least one of two Ropuchas which successfully sped out from the port during the fire. These are reportedly the Black Sea Fleet-vessels Tsezar Kunikov and Novocherkassk – being true youngsters among the Russian amphibious ships in having been commissioned only in 1986 and 1987 respectively – of which the Kunikov had a quite sizeable fire visible on deck while leaving Berdyansk. This might turn out to be relatively minor damage if it is a case of burning debris having been flung away by the hot air and explosions on the Saratov(?) and then landed on the vessel, though as a rule of thumb you don’t want open flames on a vessel. The status of Novocherkassk is more unclear, but some damage looks likely here as well.
The impact on the war is likely to be modest. If there is half a battalion, especially a fresh elite unit such as naval infantry, now running around without munitions that is obviously bad, especially as Russia so far seem to struggle with their logistics flows even when they aren’t interrupted by massive fires. The loss of the vessel is likely to be felt in the long-run for a country that has seen a total of two LSTs built in the last 30 years, and it will impact the ability to project power in the long run (the Tapir and Ropucha have been regulars on the Syria-run, shipping equipment to Syria to help Assad and the Russian expeditionary forces there). It won’t, however, directly affect the war for the time being as the concentration of six LSTs from the Northern and Baltic Fleets to the Black Sea means Russia should be able to cover the shortfall for now, and the amphibious threat to Odesa remains unchanged. If the port is damaged that is more of a headache for the continued operations against Mariupol and to the north from there, but the extent to which Russia had planned on using Berdyansk as a logistics node is unclear.
An interesting detail is that the earlier video of the Orsk unloading the BTR-82s showed them being hoisted over the side instead of driven off, a procedure that takes significantly longer compared to just rolling out through the bow doors. While it is true that the bow ramp of the vessel is low compared to many larger ro/ro-vessels and as such may not fit the facilities in the port, the low draught of the vessel means that there should be a number of secondary locations available for it to use, one of which you’d imagine would have a ramp that fits. The BTR-82 is also amphibious, so it should even have been possible to let them leave the vessel some ways away from shore and ‘swim’ the last part – something that is regularly seen practised on exercises. If the Russians simply aren’t in a hurry to get the vehicles into combat that would be one thing, but most indications are that there is indeed pressure from the top to get the stalled offensives moving again. Considering that the scene doesn’t show the sense of urgency that is to be expected, but rather it once again seems like ineptitude on behalf of the Russian armed forces.
Putin’s war in Ukraine has been described by many as the first live-streamed war, and tuning into Twitter or other social media it certainly feels that way. While we have earlier seen embedded journalists get close access to combat units, this time the journalists – both local and foreign ones showing great courage by choosing to report from Ukraine right now – have received company by any number of Ukrainian civilians sharing images, texts, and videos from their neighbourhoods. However, due to this there is an evident risk that people outside of Ukraine (and to some extent inside the country as well) feel that they know exactly how the war is going.
It is easy to step into this trap. The main bias is that reporters, bloggers, and other people who like to hear their own voice have a tendency to tell stories based on things we know – as opposed to describing the unknown. In a war full of remarkable persons and events there are certainly more stories deserving to be told than there is bandwidth. The other bias is that Ukraine has been remarkably effective in shaping the information space. This stems both from the Ukrainian political and military leadership skilfully setting the agenda, as well as from the Ukrainian civilians being surprisingly OPSEC-savvy and not sharing much in the way of images depicting Ukrainian movements or losses. There is also the obvious issue of the fog of war giving us a false picture of events (i.e. we believe we know something that later turn out to be false).
Despite all of this, there is a number of things we recognise that we don’t know, which in my opinion doesn’t get acknowledged enough in the stream of information out there.
So here it comes, a list of important things we don’t know.
The Ukrainian losses
We don’t know the Ukrainian losses with any kind of certainty. While there have been some official figures published by Ukrainian authorities, these are best treated with a grain of salt. The Russian figures for the Ukrainian losses are simply a joke, and the western intelligence agencies and authorities who supply what probably are the most reliable estimates for Russian losses are less keen to discuss the Ukrainian ones.
Naturally, the Ukrainian losses are a key metric when trying to understand how much of their pre-war combat potential Ukraine has left. Speaking of which…
The Russian losses
We don’t really know the full scope of the Russian losses either. The Ukrainian figures published are almost certainly too high. E.g. the US estimate for total number of troops killed – though notably described as a “conservative” estimate – is at half the number. Again, the Russian figures are a bad joke that is disrespectful towards their own soldiers.
At the same time, the best open-source resource which lists equipment losses – the Oryx-blog post kept by Stijn Mitzer and team – and only looks at visually confirmed losses has listed approximately half the number of tanks and a third the number of rocket launchers as the Ukrainians claim. The methodology is obviously set to give a too low number, as it isn’t an estimate per se, but still point to a discrepancy.
At the end of the day, we probably have a better picture of Russian losses than we have of Ukrainians, but even here we don’t have a comprehensive picture. It is rather unclear what it means for the combat capability of individual units or formations.
The Russian capabilities
That Russia has seriously performed below expectation in this war is well-established by now. There is a solid argument to be made that the initiation of the war was made with suboptimal preparations on the side of the Russians, with little to nothing in the way of preparation for the individual soldiers or tactical formations. There is also the argument that morale among the average Russian soldier fighting NATO or a country that isn’t part of the Russian-proclaimed East-Slavic brotherhood would be higher, which might hold water as well.
At the same time, it is also true that this really should be the ideal situation for Russia. Being the sole aggressor, surrounding Ukraine from three sides, and not fearing any other neighbour taking the opportunity to sort out old wrongs, they literally had all the time they wanted to set up this one perfectly. Was the military leadership hamstrung by the whims of Putin? It certainly looks that way, but at the same time once the shooting starts, you can expect something akin of regression towards the mean when it comes to true combat capability once a unit is sent into combat, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Instead we see presumed elite units such as VDV, the 4th Guards Tank Divsion (Kantemir), and the Arctic units such as the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade do downright stupid stuff and lose equipment through what looks like a combination of disastrous incompetence, poor logistics, and faltering morale.
At the end of the day, we don’t know the combat capability of the Russian forces. They seem to be a mess on many levels (see points above, the word “seem” might be doing a lot of heavy lifting here), but at the same time it still is the Russians and not the Ukrainians that are advancing.
The level of control
#Ukraine: It is alleged that a Russian convoy attempting to leave Mykolaiv for Kherson fell into an ambush near #Snigurovka, and crashed their vehicles, leaving behind a BM-21 Grad pattern MRL and a supply truck. As can be seen, a TDF fighter is inspecting the aftermath. pic.twitter.com/IjIJE7KCpC
But while Russia is advancing, we also see that in many places the Ukrainians aren’t looking like they are trying to hold a solid frontline. We are instead seeing some key locations, mainly urban areas, being defended determinedly, and in the areas not defended we see continuous attacks by small units, indirect fires, as well as drone and potentially air strikes against smaller Russian units and logistics trains. Exactly how much control the Russian units exert over large areas of the land that they have presumably occupied is an open question. It is also notable that the Russian forces available – including the Rosgvardiya – are way too small to be able to occupy and pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population according to both most academic measures as well as practical experience post-WWII. So how much of the country is really cleared from Ukrainian troops? We don’t know.
The lessons to learn
The tank is dead. As is light infantry on the offensive. Airborne and airmobile forces are also. And not to mention the amphibious landing.
The truth is that we have a very fragmented picture of the operations so far. Some ideas can indeed be said to have been proven to be less than stellar – such as sending tanks unsupported into urban combat, or airborne operations without adequate support. But truth be told these were disproven numerous times earlier as well. There are some interesting things to note, such as the issue Russia has with establishing air superiority, including stopping the relatively limited force of Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2s (36 vehicles and two fuel trains confirmed hit by the Bayraktars on the Oryx blog so far). However, these are still early days, and we don’t have the full picture of e.g. which weapons have been responsible for the spectacular images of some of Russia’s most modern armoured vehicles being reduced to burnt-out scrap metal.
Again, to some extent we are fed a curated version of the war by the Ukrainians, and it will only be in the years after the conflict when veterans and eyewitnesses on all levels are interviewed that we will start to be able to get a truly comprehensive picture of what worked and what didn’t in Putin’s latest war (and then we can start arguing about which lessons are general and which were due to the particular circumstances of this war). As such, for now we don’t quite know which lessons to learn.
It’s healthier to tie up one’s horse at the roundpole fence of one’s enemy, than that he would tie up at ours
Bishop Johannes Rudbeckius
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them
Jesus (Matthew 7:12)
The war in Ukraine is raging on, and so far the Finnish political leadership does seem to still be “looking” at what the options are to help Ukraine and to increase Finnish security. Let’s be blunt:
This war has not come as a surprise, but we’ve seen months of Russia moving units into position until it was more a question of when rather than if. As such, that there isn’t a ready plan is something of a failure of planning, as even if the Finnish politicians didn’t think that war was the most likely outcome, it should have been evident months ago that it was at very least a real risk and as such there should have been a contingency plan. Still, here we are, and in the interest of public service, here is what can and should be done:
Closer cooperation with Sweden (and possibly other partners as well)
While Finnish-Swedish defence and foreign policy cooperation is rather deep already, there are a few practical steps that can be taken swiftly and which would both serve operational purposes as well as provide valuable signalling. The lowest hanging fruit is to invite the Swedish Air Force’s intelligence gathering platforms – crucially the S 102B ‘Korpen’ and S 100D ‘Argus’ – to operate in Finnish airspace and potentially even from Finnish bases, Rovaniemi and Tampere-Pirkkala likely being the prime candidates in that case.
The S 102B Korpen (Swedish for raven, having gotten its name from the ravens that flew all over the world to bring information to the god Odin in Norse mythology) are SIGINT-equipped Gulfstream G-IVSP, while the S 100D Argus (named for the all-seeing giant in Greek mythology) is the Swedish AEW&C platform, a Saab 340 with an Erieye-radar on top (the designation ASC890 is also used). Both are regularly seen flying over the Baltic Sea towards Kaliningrad, but are also doing regular runs along the Finnish-Swedish border in the north, trying to get a look into Russian airspace. Allowing them to fly in Finnish airspace would significantly increase their reach, and allow the Swedes to gather better information on what Russia is doing. In the best of worlds, they might even be ready to share some of the material with Finnish intelligence, as while the Finnish Air Force does operate a SIGINT-aircraft, there might certainly be some differences in the sensors carried that allow for the Swedes gathering data which we don’t have, and in any case we lack an AEW&C platform. Even if the Swedish intelligence community would not want to share their information with us, helping Sweden to have a better situational picture on which to base their policy decisions is certainly in itself valuable for Finland. The political signalling would also be a value.
Joint buys of ammunition and other materiel would also be something that both would increase the combat capability (and therefore deterrence value) of the armed forces in both countries as well as signal political resolve in both countries. As it so happens, the Swedish CinC has already provided a request to the Swedish parliamentary defence committee requesting permission to buy more ammunition, fuel, food, and medical supplies than planned under the current budget. As Finland and Sweden recently signed a framework agreements for how to jointly acquire ammunition, this is an excellent opportunity to show both resolve and cooperation in practice.
Joint exercises are more difficult to drum up at short notice, but a few things could still be done. Letting key people such as unit commanders and other high-ranking officers meet for discussions (preferably with photo ops of them standing around a table or out in the field and pointing at maps and things to show how serious the discussions are) can be arranged at relatively short notice thanks to their small footprint. Everyone’s busy right now, but clearing out a day in the calendar should still be doable. Having the commanders of the Norrland’s dragoons and the Jaeger brigade stand at the shore in Suomussalmi flanked by their chiefs of staffs and look over towards at Hulkonniemi would be a rather clear message to any potential adversary, and the importance of personal connections between officers at all levels can’t be overestimated. The same can obviously be done at the political level as well.
Similar kinds of things could preferably be done with other partners in the region as well. A high-profile visit by Finnish Air Force personnel to Evenes Air Force Base in the Norwegian high north to discuss F-35 operations in adverse conditions or the decision to jointly acquire more Stingers with Latvia could certainly fit the bill. However, as Finland and Sweden are two of the only European democracies choosing not to be part of a defensive alliance with other fellow democracies, it is certainly possible that many of the other countries are too busy doing internal alliance-stuff, and it might leave Finnish-Swedish cooperation as the most viable path in the near term.
Weapons to ukraine
This really should have taken place back before Russia invaded, and it is outright bizarre that Finland has declined exports to Ukraine – not just decided not to gift weapons to Ukraine, both from allowing them to buy Finnish-made stuff – with the logic that Finland don’t ship weapon to conflict zones. Besides the obvious stuff that this hasn’t been a show-stopper in certain earlier cases – such as the Patria AMVs appearing in Yemen – it is utter stupidity that Finland would play a part in setting a precedent that if Russia threatens war, other countries should not export weapons to the threatened democracy. But that is all water under the bridge, and the next question is what to do now?
The obvious fact still stand. It is in Finland’s interest to aid Ukraine with as much weapons and ammunition as possible. This argument does not rest on altruism – though you can make that argument as well – both on cold hard realism. Finland has only one possible military adversary in today’s world, and that is Putin’s Russia: a country ruled by a dictator that has outright invaded some neighbouring countries, propped up dictators in others, and supported (more or less organic) separatist movements in yet others, and which has as late as this week warned Finland (and Sweden) against us exercising our sovereign right to choose our security solutions. As such, few things would improve Finland’s geopolitical situation as much as a Ukrainian “victory” (whatever that means) in this war.
The cold hard truth is that every T-80BVM tank of the 200th OMB that is knocked out in Ukraine is one less tank in Pechenga, and that means less forces close to the Finnish border, and that in turn means less combat capability that Russia can use to threaten – or if the worst comes, invade – Finland with. It also means less funds for training and more of the training done being at a simpler level, as the focus in the Russian armed forces shifts to replacing lost equipment and personnel.
This is the cold face of war, that securing the upper hand usually means those on the other side of the border will die or otherwise be made to suffer. It is the grim reality we need to keep in mind when discussing these things, but at the end of the day we didn’t choose this any more than the Ukrainians. Instead, Putin did, and we need to be prepared for him actually staying true to his word when he keeps threating the use of force. As such, arming Ukraine builds Finnish deterrence as our relative strength grows, meaning that the Russian leverage to put pressure on us decreases.
So what can we do?
The obvious thing is the old AK-clones in different version. Finland has earlier bought numerous different foreign-made AKs, including from ex-DDR and Chinese stocks. Following the downsizing of the armed forces, word on the street has it that none of these would be used by the 280,000 strong fully mobilised force (with the exception of the rather limited number of foreign-built folding-stock rifles used by AFV crews), and already back in 2006 there was talk that they could be gifted to the Afghan National Army as the FDF didn’t want or need them. It is highly unlikely that the FDF would need them more now than they did back then, and they could certainly fit the requirement of simple weapons that could be handed out to volunteers in the campaign Ukraine has now embarked upon.
One weapon system that has not been mentioned is the sniper rifles that are becoming surplus in the near future with the introduction of the Sako M23 which will replace most 7.62 TKIV 85 (a highly modded Mosin-Nagant) and all 7.62 TKIV Dragunov. These sport calibres that are found in Ukrainian service and rounds which will be surplus to the FDF with the retirement of the rifles. While it is too early to ship away all, I would certainly believe that at least some of them could be declared surplus right away.
But the big deal is the NLAW and Stinger missiles. With armoured vehicles and massed helicopter assaults being among the key threats facing the Ukrainians, providing simple weapon systems that Ukraine already operate would be a significant addition the combat capability of the Ukrainian army. Also, the knowledge of more missiles being on the way will ensure that the Ukrainian defence forces are freer in using the stocks they already have. And from a Finnish perspective, again, tanks that become burning hulks in Ukraine won’t be used to intimidate Finland in half a years time.
But doesn’t Finland need these weapons for ourselves?
Yes, and no. The weapons are needed, but right now we are in a rare situation where Russia actually does not have the capability to perform offensive operations in our neighbourhood thanks to the better part of the units normally stationed nearby being in Ukraine. If Finland is quick (because we might not be the only one who wants to top up our stocks) to call Saab and Raytheon and place orders for more NLAWs and Stingers respectively this could provide a good opportunity to rotate stocks (granted the current stocks probably have plenty of shelf life left, so it isn’t urgent from that perspective), and still be back at having a sizeable stocks of missiles by the time the Russian units are back from Ukraine and have recovered from their losses. Obviously, that would require more funds, but the weapons right now would certainly do more for Finnish security in Ukrainian hands than in Finnish depots. And as mentioned, we have a framework for buying anti-tank munitions jointly with Sweden, so this would fit in with the idea of using that very framework as expressed above.
We are back to political will. If the political leadership is ready to grab the opportunity and prepared to pay for the costs, it certainly is doable (though the scale depends on a number of factors, many of which are classified).
Yes, we should have joined NATO ages ago. Nothing has changed, besides there now being yet another data point that non-NATO countries get invaded by Russia more frequently than NATO-countries. Why we wouldn’t want to build our security together with or European and trans-atlantic partners is beyond my understanding, and anyone arguing for us being safe from Putin’s anger if we just keep calm has a rather more difficult time making that argument convincingly following this week (though in all honesty this was clear to anyone willing to look at the world and make a sober assessment already in 2008). The exact form and steps taken to join can be discussed, and I leave that to other.