Has the F-35 gone to war?

A surprising Twitter-thread by Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot Tuesday stated that the F-35 made its combat debut already in January, when it would have taken part in an Israeli raid on Damascus.

Unfortunately, I do not read French, but Air Forces Monthly published a nice overview of the info, found here.

The raid has been known from before, and was directed against Mezze Air Base (alternative spellings include ‘Mazzeh’ and ‘Mezzeh’) in the western outskirts of Damascus, around 45 km from the armistice line marking de facto Israeli territory post-1973. The base is clearly visible in Google Maps. Notable observations include:

  • The base seems to house mainly military helicopters, though a few fast jets are visible,
  • A number of hardened-aircraft shelters are found, naturally it is impossible to tell if more aircraft are housed in these,
  • Several of the revetments at the ‘amoeba’-area in the middle of the field seems to have been hit. Several small marks could indicate either cluster munitions, secondary explosions/shrapnel/fires from aircraft standing there being hit, or salvos of (light) mortar fire.

The base has been hit several times by the Israelis, including in December last year. Then the alleged weapon of choice according to Syrian news agency SANA was a surface-to-surface missile system fired from a position close to Mount Avital (or Tal Abu Nada). As a side-note, I find the claimed firing position somewhat dubious. SANA claimed in the January attack as well that the weapon used was a surface-to-surface missile, but fired from close to Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Another interesting raid allegedly took place in December 2015. Here, a Syrian source claimed that the Israelis fired four Spice-2000 stand-off precision guided munitions from inside Israeli airspace, to take out the convicted Hezbollah-associated terrorist Samir Kuntar in his sixth-floor apartment in Damascus. While it seems certain Kuntar died in an explosion at his apartment, the exact circumstances are unclear to say the least.

What is certain is that in the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force completely dismantled the Syrian ground-based air defence network, and then followed it up by destroying the fighters that the Syrian Arab Air Force scrambled. After this, the Israelis has proved a number of times that they can operate inside Syrian airspace more or less with impunity. The single most famous raid was Operation Orchard, the raid that destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, and which included both fighter jets and helicopter inserted special forces. This haven’t changed despite the Russians bringing modern surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, though whether this is due to Israel only operating outside their range, the systems not being as capable as they are rumoured to be, or due to behind-the-scenes politics between Russia and Israel over the head of the Syrian government is unclear.

Air Mobility Command enables delivery of Israel’s first F-35s
One of the first two F-35’s being refuelled by a Tennessee Air National Guard KC-135 During their trans-Atlantic flight. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Erik D. Anthony via Wikimedia Commons

The first two F-35’s arrived in Israel last December, and they have seen heavy use by the Golden Eagle Squadron based at Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev desert. Officially the aircraft undertook their first night flight on the evening of 16 January (or 15 January, the wording is somewhat unclear).

The IAF article on the event is interesting in many ways. The squadron commander, Lt. Col. Yotam, has nothing but praise for the aircraft. “We are performing a night flight very quickly in comparison to other aircraft that were integrated in the IAF”, he notes, while at the same time maintaining that they “in every mission, we operate slowly and in a supervised manner, while performing in-depth risk management”.

This event took place a few days after the alleged use of the Adir over Syria.

“The ‘Adir’s ability to fly in threatened areas is allowed not only thanks to the dark”, explained Lt. Col. Yotam. “We plan to fly without constraints of time or space, so it is a scenario we want and need to train for”.

Despite the aircraft officially still being in test and evaluation use in Israeli service, the IAF has built up a reputation as just the kind of force to throw out the rulebook and go with a ‘whatever gets the job done’-philosophy. The ability to penetrate air defence networks to hit high-value targets is certainly there for the F-35, with the F-35A having the ability to do so (against static targets) already with the current state of software and weapons integration.

However, there are numerous things speaking against an early combat debut. The aircrafts would have spent barely a single month in Israel at the time of the raid, which despite the previous testing done in the US and the mission-centric philosophy of the IAF is a very short timespan. They also lack proper integration into the Israeli combat network, as the IAF will fit a number of indigenous systems into the aircraft on top of the aircraft’s own code (the changes are large enough that several sources, including the IAF, refer to the Israeli F-35A as the F-35I). This job has not been done yet, making some question whether the IAF would risk operating the fighters over enemy airspace outside of the Israeli command and control network.

Perhaps the main issue is the fact that Israel demonstrably has no urgent need to push the Adir into harms way. The Air Force, as well as some ground based systems, can reach Mezze even from within Israeli territory, and even if there would be a need to get closer for better precision, this has been shown to be possible with ‘legacy’ fighters such as the F-15I and F-16I as well.

It is of course possible that the Israelis saw the use of the Adir as a means in itself, showing not only Syria but other potential adversaries as well that the Israel’s newest tool is a true weapon system bringing new capabilities to the Air Force and not just an expensive toy (or perhaps to convince doubters high enough in the Israeli command structure/politics that they receive access to info on the raid). It might also have been decided to use the Adir as part of its test program, to measure its current capability.

Still, at the end of the day, there is no denying that the schedule simply seems too tight, and I find the claim that the Adir would have seen combat a month after its in-country arrival too far-fetched.

Another question is whether it would have made a difference if the Adir had taken part in the raid or not? In theory it wouldn’t. The baseline F-35A reached IOC last year with the USAF, and considering its performance both during the evaluations and in post-IOC exercises a mission 50 km into a relatively lightly defended airspace such as this is nothing spectacular. In practice however, the marketing value of the ‘Combat Proven’-stamp shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, it was Israeli combat use fifty years ago that provided some of the groundwork for the huge export success enjoyed by on of the truly classic fighters of the last century.

Review: Ryska elitförband och specialvapen

Unless you have stumbled upon this blog by pure coincidence, chances are you have an idea about what spetsnaz is. But how much do you really know about their history and current status, not to mention the different units which at one time or another have been described by the word? A Swedish book by historians Joakim von Braun and Lars Gyllenhaal clear up the picture, and tell the story of Russian (and Soviet) elite units from the birth of the Soviet Union to the present day.

Ryska elitförband och specialvapen (Russian elite units and special weapons) first came out a few years ago, but was rather quickly followed by a significantly revised and expanded second edition which was published by Fischer & Co in 2016. It is this edition which is the subject of this review.

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J v. Braun & L Gyllenhaal: “Ryska elitförband och specialvapen”. Second edition published in 2016, 231 pages in hardcover. Swedish.

As the name implies, the book covers the whole spectrum of Russian military and paramilitary forces, stretching from the naval OMRP combat divers and the Vityaz of the MVD, to larger specialised forces such as the airborne VDV and naval infantry.

The book follows a roughly chronological order, starting with two pages dedicated to pre-1917 units such as oprichnina and the korvolant, before moving on to the main focus of the book with a chapter on the earliest Soviet special units. To cover the bewildering array of different units that has passed through the ranks during the last hundred years, the book mixes big and small stories, featuring smaller anecdotes and case studies in between the major developments. In part this is also due to the secretive nature of the topic, there are cases where there simply aren’t much information available!

One example of the latter is the spetsnaz units operating on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. However, this chapter also provide an example of the unique nature of the book: by combining the sparse Russian and German sources available with interviews made with the relatively large number of Swedish volunteers who served in the units, a picture can be made of a largely forgotten part of the Spanish conflict. The sabotage missions behind enemy lines are also interesting in that they provide insight into the way communist sabotage rings were expected to operate in other countries as well, an example being the rather large operation that was active in Sweden during WWII.

As can be expected from a Swedish book, much attention is given to Swedish individuals serving in Soviet units, as well as to Soviet (and DDR!) units operating in Sweden. While these at times fail to spike my interest as a non-Swede, the use of Swedish sources does add significant value especially to the chapters dealing with developments around the Baltic Sea and the aforementioned Spanish Civil War chapter. Underwater incursions into Swedish waters and their role in Soviet military planning also gets covered in depth, and reading the chapters on these raises interesting questions with regards to Finnish Cold War history.

But back to the book. As VDV and different special forces were the preferred tools of trade in any interventions abroad, the book also deals with the Soviet foreign adventures of the Cold War. Some of these are largely forgotten today, like the Soviet-led Ethiopian operation that turned the tide of the Ogaden War by airlanding large amounts of light armour behind Somali lines. Others are well-known operations, but the role played by elite units in these might be overlooked. This is the case with Operation Danube, the invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968. The case-study of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is especially interesting, showing that little-green men is far from a new phenomenon.

Speaking of little green men, the book goes right up til early 2016 in Ukraine and Syria. Though to be fair, if your interest is the use of Russian special forces in these two conflicts in particular, you are better served elsewhere.

Where this book does shine then, is by providing a bird’s-eye view of more or less all Russian and Soviet elite units post-1917. Without getting caught up in minute details, you get a good overview of not only what kind of units have been created over the years, but also their use, equipment, and further developments. In some cases I wish there were more details given, but considering the sheer number of units raised by the armed forces, intelligence services, borders guards, and ministry of internal affairs, covering everything in depth in a 200-page book is simply impossible. In general I think the amount of time spent on each topic is fairly well balanced, though this naturally varies with taste. While the book can be read cover-to-cover, something I enjoyed doing as part of this review, this really is one of those books you want to have in your bookshelf to be able to pull out and use as a reference when encountering yet another Russian acronymed unit. The chapters are clearly defined and structured in a way that if you want to know the difference between the different combat divers of the navy or get an overview of the presidential guard, you can quickly skip to that chapter and get the answers you need. Some of the more interesting units presented include not only the brief history of the sole Soviet unit to feature jaegers (created by two Finns), but also a close look at the secretive deep-water research agency GUGI and its hydronauts. From a Finnish point of view, the fact that GUGI (like other underwater spetsnaz) extensively trains and performs evaluations and developments projects in the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga is of special interest.

file_000-19
The shifted signature. Unfortunate, but not bad enough that I personally would consider it a deal-breaker.

Edit: Having heard of my issue with the binding, the publisher contacted me and expressed their surprise at the issue. According to them, this was very rare, and they offered to ship a replacement at no cost. The new book has now come, and I am happy to report that as far as I can tell there are no issues whatsoever with the quality of this one.

One unfortunate issue I had was that the quality of the binding left to be desired, and already during the first reading I noticed that one of the signatures had started to shift. It still holds together, and doesn’t seem about to loosen further. Naturally, I can’t say if this is representative of the edition as a whole, or if I was just unlucky (or if one of my kids somehow managed to have a stab at it without me noticing…).

What else is there to say? The book is well illustrated, largely in colour, and features both a timeline and an extensive source list (though, as always, I would have loved to see end-notes). As the title indicates, the special weaponry used is also covered, including some exotic pieces of gear like underwater grenade launchers. I dare say that some of the info included, especially those parts that are based on Swedish and/or untranslated Russian sources, is previously unpublished material not only in Swedish, but in the west as a whole. If you are able to read Swedish and interested in Russian (or Soviet) armed forces, this is the book for you.

Highly recommended.

Starting now I will be posting reviews every first Friday of the month. The book in this case was kindly provided for review by Fischer & Co. And Lars, wouldn’t a revised and expanded edition of Elitförband i Norden be an excellent companion to this one?

White papers, dark prospects

The recent Finnish white paper on defence (fi. Puolustusselonteko) is grim reading, but should be commended for its honesty. Most importantly, the picture it portrays is far more serious than it has been reported.

The current environment (found in chapter 2) is dominated by Russia. The country is modernizing its armed forces, and in addition to the ‘Ukrainian conflict’ and Syria, it has shown its ability ‘to make strategic decisions swiftly’ and use military and non-military measures in a coordinated way to reach its goals. It also maintains units from all services in a constant state of high-readiness, and is able to transfer these rapidly over significant distances. Other security authorities, such as EMERCOM, are also able to take part in and provide resources to the defence forces in times of crises.

Crucially, this ability is coupled with a voiced goal of reinstating spheres of influence as a part of the international security environment.

This is contrasted with NATO, which is developing its military readiness, with the ‘aim of stabilising security in its own area’.

Chapter four describes the politics behind the Finnish national security decisions in further detail. As this was not the focus area of this white paper but of earlier ones, this is largely a rehash of old phrases. Finland is militarily non-aligned, maintains an option to apply for NATO-membership, taking part in military exercises strengthens our national ability, and so forth.

What is eye-catching is the first sentence of chapter 4.3:

Finland’s defence requires […] the ability to receive international assistance.

This is a bizarre statement. Not in and by itself, but because it clearly gives away the fact that the higher echelons of the national security leadership believe that we aren’t able to defend ourselves with our own resources, but will need outside assistance. This isn’t a new opinion in the defence discussions, but the higher political (and sometimes military) leadership has usually been keen to deny this being the case.

The reason is obvious: if we can’t defend ourselves, then we ought to remedy this be securing assistance, right? Maybe by joining a bunch of other democratic countries which have the ‘aim of stabilising security in its own area’?

Having glossed over this obvious follow-up question, the rest of the white paper is largely dealing with current and future capabilities of the defence forces.

Chapter three describes the current state of the Army as ‘satisfactory’. Modern material has been bought to replace those that have become obsolete, though financial restraints means that the quantities bought are too small. On the whole, it is repeated in a number of places that the Finnish Defence Forces is unable to build up the stocks of weapons and other equipment needed to fight a prolonged conflict. Especially when it comes to intelligence gathering, C3, logistics, and deep strike capabilities, there are significant deficits in the current organisation and stocks.

The Air Force and the Navy are currently in somewhat better shape, and they also have clear plans for how to maintain their fighting power in the upcoming decades. Still, the mentions about the small number of long-range munitions is probably as true for the Air Force as it is for the other branches. An interesting side note is the fact that the Air Force in several places is mentioned as taking part in not only land battles but sea ones as well, by providing fire support. The Air Force currently lacks weaponry to provide any kind of serious anti-ship (not to mention ASW) capability, so it remains to be seen how this hole is to be plugged.

The Voluntary Local Defence Forces and MPK will take a more prominent role in localised defence duties, as well as by providing support to other government agencies. These are to be equipped according to the threat picture they face, and MPK will be developed ‘as a strategic partner of the Defence Forces, in line with the Nordic concept’. Maakuntajoukot, meet Hjemmeværnet / Hemvärnet / Heimevernet?

For the wartime forces, the number of lightly equipped units will increase, apparently both in absolute and relative terms. This goes against the message of the Defence Forces so far, which has been that the Defence Forces is unwilling to muster more troops than it can equip (which the white paper admits actually is the case even today). Or as a senior officer recently expressed it: “The war we prepare for is not what you see on TV from Aleppo, nor is it ‘model Cajander’

The increase in wartime strength from 230,000 to 280,000 has been the most widely publicised change of the paper. However, as is clear from the text, this is not in fact a real increase, but creative accounting. A number of units which earlier has not been included in the official wartime strength, including training units, the Border Guards (sorting under the Ministry of Interior in peace, but subordinated to the Defence Forces if the situation so requires), and any currently serving conscripts that have received an adequate level of training. The optimist says this is a case of clever strategic communication, in which Finland signals its willingness to defend itself. The cynic says this is internal politics by minister of defence Jussi Niinistö trying to turn the party’s downward trend before the upcoming elections.

The new high-readiness units of the Army

The general picture is that money is missing everywhere, and the new higher readiness units and the generally higher level of readiness further increases the deficit. Again, this impacts the Army the hardest, as it traditionally has maintained a lower level of readiness compared to the Navy and especially the Air Force. The meager increase in funds allocated will barely cover the higher level of readiness, it costs money to store equipment in a state of being ready to use as opposed to soaked in grease, and the mountain of ageing equipment is still largely unaddressed.

On the positive side, the white paper is at least honest about this. As we all know, admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it.

Midget Submarines at Kalbådagrund

The following chain of thoughts started when a strange place name appeared in a blog post by Swedish defence blogger Jägarchefen. Further research led to a theory, the reasoning behind which is detailed below.

The CIA file

The open archive of CIA FOIA files include a large number of documents dealing with Soviet vessel movements in the Baltic Sea. Most of these are rather unspectacular, doing little but dispelling the idea that intelligence work is anything like a Bond-adventure. There are however exceptions, like file number CIA-RDP80-00810A007600280010-0, dated 13 October 1955.

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‘Kalbod Shallows light’ likely refers to Kalbådagrund lighthouse southeast of Helsinki, where a caisson-type lighthouse was erected on a dangerous shoal in 1952. Here, a flotilla of 10 to 12 midget submarines passed by under tow in the evening of 27 May 1955. But where did they come from, and why were they outside of Helsinki in 1955?

The War Trophies

In the closing years of World War II the surface units of the German Navy faced pressure from ever increasing numbers of Allied aircraft and naval ships. The logical answer was to start using the submarine force also for missions closer to shore. This called for smaller vessels, capable of manoeuvring in the more confined waters of the Atlantic coastline.

Probably the most successful of the host of different craft created was the Typ XXVII B, better known as Seehund. The 12 meter (~40 feet) long submarine had a crew of just two man, and as opposed to most midget submarines it wasn’t fitted for operations with limpet mines or divers, but was armed with two G7e torpedoes, the standard weapon of the German submarine force. As the submarine was so small, these were strapped on externally. They were sighted through a fixed periscope, located in the forward part of the tower.

kleinstuboot_seehund
Source: Uwe Ernst/Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet captured a number of these vessels, though exactly how many remains unclear. Some sources claim that only a very limited number was in use[1], but most list a significantly larger force. The British Royal Navy’s Director of Naval Intelligence in 1952 commented that the Soviet Navy “acquired some 50-70 ex-German, Italian and Japanese midget submarines after the war, but it seems likely that they have produced their own post-war version, which, from reports, seems to incorporate parts from the design of all above. There are also reports which indicate training in midget S/Ms in the Soviet Navy at the present time.”[2] The CIA is also looking at a similar number, stating that the Soviet Navy had “at least 70 midget submarines” in service in November 1953, of which around 20 are ex-German Seehund vessels, the rest being an “improvement on the previous type and made use of German SEEHUND plans”. These Soviet improved Seehunds were built after 1947. Notable is also that CIA has no information “regarding specific bases for these submarines”, but they also concede that they can be operated from “any existing base”, or from a properly equipped support ship.[3]

Other sources support this picture. The Swedish intelligence service was also on the trail, with the so called T-office reporting in 1946 that “On pier in Kronstadt harbour lies some midget submarines, probably ex-German”. Russian naval historian Vladimir Shcherbakov notes that the Seehunds “were used rather intensively”. Swedish historians von Braun and Gyllenhaal puts the confirmed number of complete Seehunds captured as “at least two”.[4]

But how did the Soviets manage to build up a sizeable force from war trophies and modified designs?

The Shipyard

The majority of the Seehunds were built at Schichau-Werke in what was then Elbing in East Prussia (today the Polish city of Elbląg). The yard escaped relatively unscathed during the war and the immediate post-war, and in 1947 it was one of few factories listed as being in service, having just delivered the first new built vessels postwar (these being torpedoboats).[5] In the same year, it was reported that Soviet (and Polish) companies tried to recruit former “technicians, employees, and workmen” of the yard in East Germany. Most refused, but “a certain number” accepted and left for East Prussia, presumably to work at the former Schichau subsidary at Contienen, which had produced parts for submarines and minesweepers during the war. The Contienen yard as well was reported to have seen relatively little damage during the war, and escaped dismantling after the Soviet forces occupied it.[6]

In 1949, the operations at Schichau-Werke in Elbing was reported to have risen back to 80 percent of its wartime capacity. Around 120 German prisoners of war were still employed as “skilled workers”, pointing to the fact that the earlier attempts to recruit workers hadn’t produced enough volunteers. The yard featured a modern welding current distribution system, and an expansion program of the yard was planned, the aim being to double the capacity by spring 1951. Interestingly, the CIA file reporting this includes a comment that the recent information “essentially confirms” other information on the shipyard, and that “it appears likely that no vessels other than small submarines are now being constructed there”.[7]

To remember is that during the last six months the yard was in operation during the war, the number of Seehunds produced in Elbing seems to have been over 100. If the CIA report was correct, even at 80 percent production the yard would have built 50 new vessels in a matter of months. But where did they go?

The Peninsula

When the Continuation War ended, amongst the Soviet demands was one which prime minister Paasikivi described as “horrendous”. The Porkkala peninsula was to be leased to the Soviet Union for 50 years, i.e. until 1994.

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Detail of the map from the armistice agreement showing the area to be leased to the Soviet Union. Note Helsinki in the upper right corner. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

This replaced the earlier deal under which the Soviets had leased the Hanko peninsula further west after the end of the Winter War, and included a very favourable transit agreement. Under this, the Finnish customs authorities had no right to inspect the cargo holds of trucks or trains transiting  between the naval base and the Soviet mainland. Soon it became apparent that foul play was involved, as sometimes the trucks could make the trip in four hours, while sometimes the time on the road stretched to up to ten hours. A SIGINT station for listening to Finnish radio communications was created at the Majvik mansion, today a meetings and convention hotel, and suitably located on top of a large hill close to the shore. In the early 1950’s the station was manned by 24 NCOs and four officers, working in three shifts to maintain a constant surveillance of the Finnish radio networks. The station was not part of the naval base’s chain of command, but instead reported directly to the intelligence section of the Leningrad Military District in all matters.[8]

In addition to being a naval base, the most well-known vessel of which was the monitor Vyborg (former Finnish coastal defence ship Väinämöinen), the base also played a significant role as an intelligence hub. A number of arrests were made and dead drops uncovered in connection to the transit traffic mentioned above, including that of air force captain Martti Salo of the aerial photography unit in Tikkakoski. It appears that the main responsibility for intelligence gathering in Finland was placed upon GRU, likely in part due to the heavy use of the military trucks travelling to and from Porkkala.[9]

Amongst the most important units of the bases was its intelligence unit. In a report covering the third quarter of 1945, the unit had not only counted and identified the nationality of all vessels sailing  past the base (1 371 vessels in total), they had also, as a collaborative effort between the “officers of the base’s staff and units situated in Finland”, gathered information and systematically categorised this into a file covering multiple aspects of Finland, including:

  1. Much information on the Pansio naval base
  2. Information on the Army and Coastal Artillery units located in the Turku region
  3. A description of the oil depot being built in Naantali
  4. A description of Finland’s coastal defences
  5. Information regarding the Finnish coast guard and all its bases

The information gathered also went down to the individual level, covering 96 Finnish officers, including their service records and personal evaluations.[10]

The continuous building of trenches and bunkers as well as the naval activity came to an abrupt halt in 1955. In September, Khrushchev suddenly informed Finland that the base would be returned. This doomed the heavily fortified base, and all defensive works were demolished, including the almost-finished command bunker Los which stretched over 100 meters through the mountainside. The personnel, numbering over 15,000, was transferred away, as was the tens of naval vessels and small crafts that were stationed there.

But did the intelligence gathering extend to other methods as well?

The Theory

My theory is that the convoy sighted on an easterly heading south Helsinki in May 1955 indeed did consist of Seehund-type submarines (either ex-German or modified new-builds). I further believe that they were in transit from Porkkala naval base to Kronstadt, either due to a unit transfer (possibly due to having received early notice of the upcoming closure) or after a finished exercise/mission.

In other words: in addition to the surface and land-based units known to have been stationed there, Porkkala played host to a unit of midget submarines in the first half of the fifties.

These have been either exercising or permanently stationed there. Considering the unique nature of the Finnish archipelago, it isn’t far-fetched to conclude that any exercises held there were made with an eye towards either the Finnish or Swedish coast. Furthermore, considering the extensive intelligence work done by the GRU out of Porkkala, it is likely that the submarines would have participated in covert intelligence gathering against Finnish targets. Especially as the intelligence work is known to have in part been directed against naval and other coastal sites

Are there alternative explanations? Certainly. The submarines might have been misidentified barges, or they might have come from Tallinn and turned north to get around heavy weather. However, the most likely explanation in my opinion is that the vessels were transiting from Porkkala to Kronstadt:

The sketch captures the general outline of the Seehund well, including the approximate location and general shape of the conning tower and the location of the fixed periscope. Riding high would be explained by the lack of torpedoes, which are unlikely to have been carried during transit.

It is assumed that the Soviet Navy operated a number of Seehund-type submarines, including of an improved design. The Soviets did capture one of the main production sites of the Seehund, and this resumed operation relatively soon after the war, with part of the workforce being German. The ability to produce the improved design appears to have been there.

The Seehunds were sighted in Kronstadt, as well as in other parts of the Baltic Sea during the time frame in question.

Porkkala held an important dual role as a naval base and intelligence gathering hub. The later was led by GRU, with some units being directly subordinated to the Leningrad Military District. Amongst the targets for the intelligence gathering operation were Finnish Navy, Coast Guard, and harbour locations. Using midget submarines for covert intelligence gathering would fit that pattern.

The location in the northern half of the Gulf of Finland also seems more likely for a unit coming from a Finnish port than from a location on the southern shore of the Gulf.

Sources

A special ‘Thank you’ to Jägarchefen and Lars Gyllenhaal!

[1] http://www.hisutton.com/Secret%20History%20-%20the%20Soviet%20submarine%20gap.html

[2] Register No. P.D. 054/52

[3] CIA file CIA-RDP80-00810A002800340004-3

[4] All quotes in paragraph from: J. von Braun and L. Gyllenhaal, Ryska elitförband och specialvapen, 2nd edn., Stockholm, Fischer & Co, 2016

[5] CIA file CIA-RDP82-00457R001100020007-4

[6] CIA file CIA-RDP82-00457R000800070004-6

[7] CIA file CIA-RDP82-00457R003300540006-7

[8] J. Leskinen, ‘Porkkalan tukikohta 1944-1956’, in J. Nieminen (ed.), Porkkala – Tapahtumien keskellä, Maanpuolustuskorkeakoulun Sotahistorian laitos, 2009

[9] K. Rentola, ‘Porkkala ja tiedustelu’, in J. Nieminen (ed.), Porkkala – Tapahtumien keskellä, Maanpuolustuskorkeakoulun Sotahistorian laitos, 2009

[10] L. Amirhanov, ‘Neuvostoliiton Porkkala-uddin laivastotukikohta kylmässä sodassa 1945-1956’, in J. Nieminen (ed.), Porkkala – Tapahtumien keskellä, Maanpuolustuskorkeakoulun Sotahistorian laitos, 2009

HX Trumped

The HX-program is moving forward, and several of the programs have seen significant changes, in many cases caused by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s new resident.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Things are looking up for the ‘Rhino’ (or ‘Super Bug’ if you want) for the moment. The Kuwaiti deal is finally looking like it could secure a second export order for the aircraft, and the Canadians seem like they could actually lease or buy  a small amount as a stop-gap to cover for the cancelled F-35 buy. This move has been discussed for years, but in the last year it has moved from speculation to government policy.

But the twist that has caused most buzz is without doubt the announcement that the new US leadership has ordered a review of the carrier-based version of the F-35C against the Advanced Super Hornet concept. While I find it unlikely that the ‘all-inclusive’ most advanced form of the Advanced Super Hornet would be ordered, this review will likely provide an updated concept (with price tags) that can be employed for future (more limited) USN updates as well as for export drives such as the HX.

Boeing, somewhat surprisingly, has kept a low profile in Finland. It remains to be seen if this will change with this summer’s air shows.

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 has been under quite some pressure following the tweets of President (then elect) Trump, who was happy to trash the cost of the program.

Lockheed Martin quickly recovered their posture (though not their stock price), and explained that they will certainly look into this, and that they have a plan ready to reduce costs further.

Now, it is uncertain to what extent Lockheed Martin and (especially) Trump are honest and to what extent they simply figured out that this theatre is just what they need. It is no secret that the unit price of the F-35 is on a healthy downward trend following the troubled early years of the program. It is also no secret that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for larger block buys, as these would make it possible for the company to achieve higher efficiency in their production lines. This is an excellent opportunity to enlist the support of the White House for the larger block buys, and in the meantime the president can happily boast about getting a better deal by getting the low-rate lots cheaper than his predecessor. Win-win, at least until some troublesome aviation journalists starts looking it…

Regardless of the politics behind it, the F-35A is now officially and for the first time below the 100 million USD threshold. This came as part of the LRIP 10 agreement, and Lockheed Martin indeed thought it prudent to credit ‘President Trump’s personal involvement’ with accelerating the negotiations and sharpening Lockheed-Martin’s focus on driving down the price. Despite the recent issues with the landing gear of the F-35C carrier-based version, the F-35A version is moving forward and meeting milestones according to plan, and the above-mentioned F-35C review against the Advanced Super Hornet will likely result in yet another paper explaining the need for stealth and sensor fusion on the modern battlefield. In other words, the mid- to long-term prospects for the F-35 look good, perhaps even slightly better than they did before Trump got involved.

Eurofighter Typhoon

In January BAE (finally) launched their official Finnish Twitter-account, quite some time after BAE Systems Belgium got theirs. On the whole, BAE has significantly heightened their profile, and isn’t the least bit shy about the fact that they thinks the Typhoon would be the best answer to the needs of the Finnish Air Force.

While BAE still hasn’t explained exactly why they think that’s the case, they have been happy to announce that the acquisition could be funded through the UK Export Finance.

What is often forgotten is that the Typhoon does indeed have an impressive service record in the harsh semi-subarctic climate of the South Atlantic, having been responsible for the air cover of the Falkland Islands since 2009. Of note is that while the aircrews assigned to RAF Mount Pleasant have been rotated, the aircrafts haven’t. The original four aircraft maintained a constant 24/7 QRA flight for over five years, before finally being relieved a while back. Honouring the traditions of the Hal Far Fighter Flight based in Malta during World War 2, the Typhoons wear tailcodes matching the names of the Gladiators of the original flight.

Dassault Rafale

Eight months ago I sat and listened to a presentation by a representative of Dassault, who happily explained the value of the fighter and (almost) all of its subsystems being French. I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself that while I understand the value of this from a domestic point of view, I am unsure whether this is a plus or minus in the case of HX. My worry was based on the sometimes volatile state of French politics, especially compared to the relatively stable state of US ones.

Let’s just say I have revised that opinion.

While France certainly has their share of pro-Russian politicians of different colours, Donald Trump has very efficiently demonstrated that the political risks associated with buying French is no larger than buying from the US.

#MAGA.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

The first flight of the ‘Dash Eight’ prototype is still some time away. Though this was originally slated for Q4 2016, representatives of Saab are adamant that the program as a whole is still on track, and that the delay is due to moving around different parts of the test and development program.

While this might be true, and not flying for the sake of just flying might be the proper decision from a program point of view, this is still something of a PR-loss for Saab, who has been pushing the “on time and budget” narrative. 2017 will be an important year for Saab’s new fighter.

Seinäjoki International Air Show 2017

Contrary to what usually is the case, the Finnish Aeronautical Association’s air show will receive some competition for the Finnish aviation crowds, in that another major air show will take place in Helsinki the day before. Still, the organisers are clear with that they try to get as many HX-competitors attending as possible, and that they hope to see them “both in the air and on the ground“. Last year the JAS 39C Gripen was flying, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being found on static display. Hopefully this year will bring some new players to the Finnish airspace.

 

Vampire

And so it seems the Houthis have scored perhaps their most spectacular success to date.

Normal disclaimers apply, we do not currently know that the video is real, but as this is in line with the earlier demonstrated capability of the Yemeni rebels to launch successful attacks against shipping, I am prepared to tentatively accept the video as real until more evidence surfaces (it always does).

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The first shot of the vessel, showing its starboard side. Note long and thin mast, tilted rear part of the stack, and Crotale-launcher on rear superstructure, all of which are characteristic for the Al Madinah. Note also helicopter on deck.
The vessel in the video is a Al Madinah class frigate. Four of these 2,000 ton (2,600 fl) frigates were built by French yard CNIM in La Seyne for the Saudi Navy during the first half of the 80’s, having been entered service between 1985 and 1986, and undergoing a major refit in France between 1995 and 2000. The crew consists of a total of 179 persons. The vessel is largely defenceless against modern anti-ship missiles, the sole air defence being an 8-shot Crotale launcher (with reloads) and two 40 mm Bofors guns (mounted amidships with relatively poor firing arches).

Based on the video, the attack seems to have followed the same modus operandi as the attack on Swift. If this is the case, the missile is most likely an Iranian-supplied C-802/Noor fired from a truck-based TEL, with the vessel having been tracked by shorebased radars and potentially shadowed by smaller vessels (note that the opening clip shows the vessel from starboard, while in the later clips it is travelling in the opposite direction). As said, this is based on the assumption that the attack seems to be modelled after the one on Swift, the short clip here gives very little to go after.

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Still from the video, showing the moment of impact. Note that it is well to the rear and below deck-level.
The single missile seems to have impacted the very rear of the vessel. This has likely destroyed the stern-mounted 533 mm torpedo tubes, variable depth sonar, and the helicopter pad, but should not be a fatal strike if the watertight compartments are properly secured and the ensuing fire is brought under control. It is however entirely possible that this has caused damage to the hull which would cause the propeller shafts to become misaligned, significantly reducing or completely ending the ships ability to move under her own steam. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a picture of the Al Madinah showing the hull below the waterline, and thus we can only guess the location of the propellers and their supports.

The frigates sport a helipad capable of handling the Saudi Navy’s AS.365 Dauphin-2, and the vessel seems to have had a helicopter aboard during the attack.

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Iranian-made Noor/C-802 anti-ship missile being fired. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Erfan Kouchari
On the whole, while this is certainly one for the history books, successful anti-ship missile attacks are surprisingly rare considering their level of proliferation, in operational terms it won’t affect the Saudi-led war. The frigates have a very limited effect on what is for all practical purposes a land war, and while the damaged frigate is likely to need a significant overhaul (if the shaft line has been damaged it might be deemed uneconomical to return to service), the long term impact boils down to two questions:

How will this affect the Saudi naval expansion program? The long-winded modernisation program is centred around the so-called LCS-frigate, but also includes smaller 2,600 ton vessels. The need for modern warships with a solid self-defence capability might suddenly become more urgent in the minds of the Saudi leadership.

The other question is Iran. The missile was certainly not something made in the basement of a local warlord, but has been imported from abroad, most likely from Iran. An Iranian supplied weapon has now put a major Saudi surface vessel out of action, and quite likely caused losses amongst its crew. How will Riyadh react to this?

With the eyes of the world on Syria (and Trump), Yemen is steadily shaping up to be the tinderbox that might cause a major regional war.

*’Vampire’ is the brevity code for a hostile anti-ship missile.

Update 31 January 2017:

A Saudi press release on the incident has been published, which contradicts the version above by claiming the attack was made by three ‘suicide boats’, one of which impacted in the stern and leading to two dead sailors. The RSAF would then have chased of the other two (the frigate does feature Link 11 for communicating with aircraft).

I find this version somewhat hard to believe. To begin with, the opening video does seem to show a missile, and not another boat. Secondly, while the frigate lacked missile defenses, it has perfectly adequate weapons to fend off three boats,  including deck guns and small arms of the crew. This is especially true given the longer reaction time available in the case of a boat versus a missile closing in. Naturally, the ship might have been at low readiness and been caught by surprise, but some kind of reaction would seem logical. The only vessel besides the frigate on the video is also the camera platform, which apparently got away.

All in all, while I don’t completely rule out the Saudi version, I still believe a missile to be the more likely version.

One ‘intermediate’ version would be that the closing vessel(s) would have fired an anti-tank missile, which would have caused a fire and potentially a secondary explosions amongst the torpedoes.

Update 06 February 

A leaked video claiming to show the flight  deck at the moment of impact has appeared, showing a white vessel approaching and then detonating. The video seems to be real, it featuring an AS365/565 on the helicopter deck, painted in the colors used by the Royal Saudi Naval Aviation, and the camera angle is the expected one for a camera watching the flight deck.

There has also appeared pictures showing the frigate entering port. The vessel sports the pennant number 702, identifying it as the lead ship of the class, ‘Al Madinah’, with visible damage being very light, and consistent with an external explosion caused by a light craft VBIED. Most likely the vessel will be back in service within weeks, as opposed to months.

‘The Best Artillery in Europe’

There are several new developments when it comes to heavy indirect fire in the Finnish Army since I last visited the topic, so here’s a brief overview, including some BONUS-content:

K9 Thunder

The planned procurement of the Korean K9 Thunder self-propelled gun is moving forward. Perhaps the greatest talking point so far has been the discrepancies between reports in KoreanKorean and Finnish media. While Finnish media talks about ‘tens of guns’ for a price tag of ‘100 million Euros or slightly above’, the Korean media is more specific, and mentions 48 guns valued at 400 million US Dollars (375 million Euros), including technology transfer. While the number of guns certainly could be correct, the difference in price is rather staggering…

Contrary to my speculating last time around, the K10 resupply vehicle is not set to be included in the deal. However, Estonia has been invited to join in the procurement. The country has declared their intent to equip their mechanised brigade, the 1. Jalaväebrigaad, with self-propelled artillery. Estonia and Finland has bought defence equipment together before, and a joint buy might be a good way to put some additional pressure on the price.

The first K9 Thunder on Finnish soil attended trials at Rovajärvi firing range last year, as part of the Join Fires Exercise (MVH 2016). The preliminary contract is expected to be signed this spring.

Lost & Found

That the Finnish artillery park has been large is no secret. Exactly how large is.

In an interesting turn of events, the latest reform of the Defence Forces suddenly increased the number of Finnish artillery pieces, 120 mm mortars and up, with about 900 pieces.

This statement, widely presented by the press as Finland hiding information from OSCE, deserves some further comments. Yes, it is certainly not in the spirit of the Vienna Agreement, though part of the explanation lies in the known omissions of the document. The document only covers systems in units down to brigade/regiment level, meaning that those artillery systems deployed in independent battalions and companies, such as the Finnish local defence units, aren’t included. The same goes for the Navy/Marines, which also is outside of the agreement. A third potential issue is stored guns which are again assigned a wartime task, and as such are re-entering the document.

The more interesting part than speculating how it was done is why, and especially why the guns were brought back into the document. There are clearly some high-level signalling taking place.

For those keeping count, the current artillery park is shown as 698 heavy mortars, 18 AMOS self-propelled mortars, 34 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers, 471 light howitzers, 76 130 mm field guns, 156 152/155 mm heavy howitzers/field guns, and 113 MLRS.

The best artillery in Europe

The planned purchase of K9 does not take place in a vacuum, but is one part of the larger plan for upgrading the artillery. The aim, as explained by Inspector of Artillery colonel Pasivirta, is to get the best artillery found in Europe, and with some margin.

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First firing of the 155 mm BONUS Mk II ‘smart’ anti-tank round at MVH 2016. Source: Maavoimat.fi

This includes already made steps, such as the introduction of the BONUS anti-tank round. The round has a range of up to 35 km, and once over the target area two sub-munitions are ejected. These are equipped with sensors, and search for armoured targets. If a suitable target is found, it is destroyed by a shaped-charge punching through the roof of the vehicle, normally the most lightly armoured part. The first firing in Finnish service of this highly potent artillery round took place at the above-mentioned MVH 2016 exercise.

The bigger headline was the announcement that the service is looking into counter-battery radars. These makes it possible to locate the position of firing units, and in some cases even to alert own troops in the enemy’s target area that enemy artillery is heading their way. The acquisition of such as system, Saab’s ARTHUR and ELTA’s ELM-2084 comes to mind, would certainly raise the deadliness of the Finnish artillery, and makes perfect sense.

More puzzling was the tweet issued by the official Finnish MoD Twitter-account. Where the colonel talks about a swift (though not rushed) procurement program with an RFQ coming out this spring, and the system being operational by 2020, the author of the tweet (grumpily?) claims that the ‘Defence Forces have wanted the radars for 30 years, but the acquisition hasn’t even been cleared for an RFI’.

I have now idea what that was about.