No Country for Old Tanks

The expression ‘Tank country’ desrcibes an area suitable for armoured warfare, and in particular for tanks. The image this usually stir up is that of open fields, with slowly rolling hills.

Russland, Unternehmen "Zitadelle", Fahrzeuge
Quintessential tank country, German units on the move during Operation Zitadelle (Battle of Kursk). Source: Federal German Archives via Wikimedia Commons

This idea is however somewhat oversimplified, as major Mikkonen of the Finnish Armoured Brigade explained in the Defence Forces’ podcast (Finnish). In open areas tanks are able to bring their mobility and good optics to bear on the enemy. However, it is often forgotten that a tank in open country is visible to the enemy as well, and it is generally easier to spot a 65 tonne steel beast than an infantry squad lying in a ditch with their ATGM (ask the Israelis). Another factor is that of air superiority, you don’t want to park your tanks out in the open if the enemy control the skies. If the enemy is able to field more tanks than your force (or more firepower in some other suitable way), meeting them out in the open fields might also not be recommendable.

So what do you do if your tanks aren’t able to deploy out in the open fields? You put them somewhere where they are hard to spot (especially from the air), somewhere where the enemy isn’t able to make use of their numbers, where the distances are short enough that ATGM’s won’t be able to use their range advantage, and somewhere where own infantry is able to make sure that enemy infantry isn’t able to get in close. In Finland, that would generally be a forrest. In other places, a city would do as well.

Traditionally, it has been held that tanks better stay out of cities. Incidents such as the destruction of Russian motorised units and their armour support during the first battle of Grozny has added to this idea. A closer look at the history of armour in urban warfare gives a more nuanced picture, with the protection offered by heavy armour proving quite useful in urban operations. The most famous example is probably the ‘Thunder runs‘ of the 64th Armoured Regiment into downtown Baghdad, but also e.g. Israeli experiences in Gaza seem to trend towards the usage of heavy armour (both tanks and heavy APC’s) for combat operations in urban terrain. Operation Protective Edge saw no less than three armoured brigades deploy units to the strip.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, the British contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence include a single tank troop (currently from the Queen’s Royal Hussars) of three Challenger 2 MBT’s, a number so small that very relevant questions have been asked about if they really can make an impact. Then this happened.

Source: Royal Tank Regiment

AJAX, the first squadron of the Royal Tank Regiment, suddenly showed off a number of Challenger 2’s painted in the iconic Berlin Brigade-camo, a patchwork of  differently sized fields of white, brown, and (a slightly blueish) grey with straight horizontal and vertical demarcations.

The camouflage dates back to the 1980’s, when the British Berlin Brigade was deployed in Berlin with their Chieftains finished in the then standard bronze-green camouflage. The officer in charge of 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards tank squadron felt this to be out of place, and inspired by the dazzle paint schemes of sea wars gone by he started looking for a suitable answer.

Long story short, he noticed the light shades of buildings together with small patches of shade and an abundance of straight lines in a modern city, and started designing a camouflage around this phenomenon. While close up the pattern looks like something out of a circus it improved with range, as the major behind it explained: “50 to 60 yards was the minimum, as you got further away the target almost disappeared at 100 yards.”

The original Berlin Brigade pattern on the British Chieftains. Source: US DoD picture via Wikimedia Commons

So why then does this (arguably useful) monstrosity resurface almost thirty years after the reunification of Berlin? The Facebook-post by RTR is open with the fact that the paint job is “part of an ongoing study into proving and improving the utility of Main Battle Tanks in the urban environment.” The RTR also notes that further modifications will be made, specifically mentioning the fitting of BEMA dozer blades (an acronym for Blade, earth moving attachment). The BEMA has been available for the Challenger 2 for quite some time already, but in practice seeing one fitted has been rare.

This seemingly rather ordinary study becomes really interesting when tied in with the question of defence of the Baltics. While three Challengers won’t be of much use when trying to stop a Russian mechanized brigade out in the fields of Estonia, being deployed in support of light infantry within the country’s cities might prove to radically increase both the survivability of the EFP tank troop and their usefulness (though urban fire support might not be the kind of Blitzkrieg the tankers had in mind when they signed up for the job). The (in)famous RAND report predicting the fall of the Baltic countries within three days did include the caveat that “quality light forces, like the U.S. airborne infantry that the NATO players typically deployed into Riga and Tallinn, can put up stout resistance when dug into urban terrain”, but also noted that “the cost of mounting such a defense to the city and its residents is typically very high [and] whether Estonia’s or Latvia’s leaders would choose to turn their biggest cities into battlefields—indeed, whether they should—is, of course, uncertain.”

Challengers taking part in exercise Sabre Strike -17 in Estonia in June this year. Source:

We don’t know if the British/Estonian battle plan is to park urbanized Challengers in the side alleys of Tallinn to ambush Russian armour columns at short range, but it certainly is a possible scenario. One interesting data point is also the fact that the Challenger is the last western MBT to feature a rifled main gun, in the form of the L30A1 55-calibre. This choice, which has serious drawbacks when firing the APSFDS rounds which are today’s standard anti-tank rounds, is due to the British preference of firing HESH-rounds for both anti-tank and general high-explosive work. These high-explosive squash head rounds are filled with plastic explosives, which upon the round impacting on the targets spreads out on it’s surface, before detonating and sending a shockwave through the target.

While the HESH isn’t really up to par with destroying modern armour, one of the places where it does outshine other kinds of tank rounds is for destroying buildings and fortifications. As such, putting the Challengers to fight in an urban environment would be a classic example of playing to the strengths of an otherwise outdated technology.

Soldiers of the Estonian Kuperjanovi jalaväepataljon practicing urban operations. The battalion is attached to Estonia’s 2. Infantry brigade, destined for operations in the central/southern parts of the country. Source: Kuperjanovi jalaväepataljon FB-page

Review: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons

Harpia Publishing is one of those publishers who seems to have a more or less continuous stream of interesting titles coming out, but who’s books I’ve never actually have gotten around to trying out. As such, I gladly jumped on the opportunity when they contacted me and asked if I was willing to review their recent titles on the Russian Air Force. First out is something quite a bit out of the ordinary: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons by Piotr Butowski.

Screenshot 2017-08-31 at 21.05.36

Compared to many western countries, Russia operate a range of different air-launched weapons. Partly this is due to the fact that while many design bureaus have been pushing newer designs, few weapons have been completely phased out in the recent decades. Instead, newer weapons have been bought in relatively small series, which are used alongside older designs. Russia has also kept a considerable number of ‘traditional’ gravity bombs, and contrary to the west, largely use these as ‘dumb’ weapons due to the difficulty of fitting them with guidance kits (contrary to the Mk 80-series, the Russian bombs are usually welded monoliths, making it impossible to change out the fins).

All this makes for a bewildering array of weapons, making the need for this book high amongst aviation geeks. A second group for which the title ought to appeal are national security pundits keeping track of what the Russian Air Force carries and uses in Syria.

The book uses a clear layout, going through the weapons category by category, including strategic weapons (nuclear bombs and strategic/theatre-level cruise missiles), tactical cruise missiles, air-to-air missiles of different classes, helicopter launched missiles, bombs, rockets, guns and gun pods, as well as naval weapons such as torpedoes and mines. Targeting pods also get an overview, though it should be noted that Russia has traditionally preferred fixed sensors instead of pods, and these sensors aren’t covered in the book. All currently operational weapons are covered, as well as those currently in development. An interesting aspect is that Butowski appears to have toured major Russian air and arms shows for years, providing a valuable source of information for projects which have at different times been in development, but which then have faded away or gone silent for some time.

There are some real gems in this volume. While I appreciate having a comprehensive overlook of the R-27 family or the Kh-31, my personal favourites where the more obscure weapons systems, such as the huge Klevok-V helicopter-launched missile, the S-13ALT radar decoy rocket, or the air-dropped mines, information on which is hard to come by.

9A4172K Vikhr and a B-8V-20 20-round rocket pod, both systems are covered in the book. Source: Минпромторг России via Wikimedia Commons
The book is a rather thin soft-cover, being just under 100 pages, and I must admit I felt a bit disappointed when I first pulled it out of the postal package. Having read it my opinion changed, and it doesn’t feel like it leave things out due to its size. When I reached the last page, on the whole I felt I had gotten all information I had hoped for, with the possible exception of the chapter on naval weapons which I felt could have been a bit longer, as well as discussing at longer lengths to what extent some systems are in wide or limited use. Those are minor complaint, as said, the information on naval systems are hard to come by, and the book provide new information for me here as well. For the production figures, it is understandable that these are guarded secrets of the Russian Air Force. The level of illustrations is also good!

On the whole, it is hard to not recommend this book. As said, it isn’t overly thick, and the price (around 20 euros) is on the higher end. However, it functions as a very handy guide both to those wanting to ID what is hanging under the wings of Russian aircraft at home and abroad, but also for modellers looking into creating suitable loadouts for their models. The information seems solid, and especially considering the fact that this is in many ways an unique book in covering the latest development up to this year. Well worth a recommendation.

Zapad 2017: Artillery to Vitebsk?

An interesting train passed Orsha central train station this week.

The location is next to a walkbridge just northwest of the central station, looking west-southwest. The bridge is the major hint, but you can also make out the apothecary with its green roof, the lower market buildings in front of it, and the low trees on the other side of the track.

Screenshot 2017-08-31 at 20.43.53
The position of the cameraman on the Yandex map. Note the location of the apothecary, Magazin No.127 and Nochnoy Ekspress.

This means that the train is heading east at the time of the filming. However, the railways around Orsha has several interesting features, and nothing certain can be said about the destination. However, the likely target is Vitebsk in northeastern Belarus, where the Losvido training range has been linked to Zapad 2017.

The train holds 12 2S19 Msta-S heavy self-propelled guns. The number is interesting, as a mechanized or armoured brigade would field 18 of these modern artillery pieces. Looking at the rest of the vehicles, the most prominent are the nine different vehicles based on the MT-LBu chassis, most of which seem to be of the 1V12-family of observer vehicles, either the older 1V12-3 “Mashina-M” or the newer 1V12M “Faltset”. A single BMP-based command vehicle is also seen, likely the command vehicle of the whole artillery unit. Suspiciously absent are not only the last third of the artillery pieces, but also the large number of different trucks which accompany artillery units, only four of which are aboard the train.

In conclusion, this leads me to believe that:

  • The last six artillery pieces and most of the trucks are being transported on a second train,
  • The complete heavy artillery of an armoured or mechanised brigade is being transferred to the area of Vitebsk for Zapad.

Collisions at Sea

Following two separate high-profile collisions of USN destroyers in the Asia-Pacific, there has been a host of theories and questions regarding how these tie in together. This post is not an attempt at determining the cause of the collisions, but rather a general comment on similarities and factors differing between the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62)/ACX Crystal and USS John S. McCain (DDG 56)/Alnic MC collisions, and some of theories thrown around. I won’t provide any conclusions, but rather ‘Food for thought’, as my high-school teacher would have put it.

To begin with, both destroyers are of the same Flight I sub-variant of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which make up roughly the first third of the destroyers produced in the series. Both were operating in the western parts of the Pacific when being hit by civilian vessels in the side. There are however important differences as well.

  • USS Fitzgerald was hit in the starboard side, while sailing somewhat south of the main sea lane leading into the Bay of Tokyo from the west,
  • USS John S. McCain was hit in the port side, while roughly at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait.

While the waters around Japan are far from deserted, they still pale in comparison to how busy the seas around Singapore are.

When discussing collisions at sea, it is important to understand one basic difference between maritime traffic and the rules of the roads: as long as as you have water under the keel, you are more or less allowed to go anywhere you want. As there are no road signs or traffic lights, issues such as right of way are instead dependent on the position of vessels relative to one another. These guidelines are found in an international document entitled ‘Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972‘, though understandably it is usually referred to by its abbreviation: COLREG (or COLREGs).

USN illustration of the collision between USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The most basic of the rules are that a ship coming from starboard (right) has the right of way, and a ship coming from port (left) has to give way. If two vessels meet head-on, both will generally hold to starboard (i.e. the seas feature right-hand traffic), though there are also a number of readily available signals which can be used to tell a nearby vessel that you will pass on their port side.

As such, a first thought is that the USS Fitzgerald would have had to give way to the ACX Crystal, while the Alnic MC would need to give way to the USS John S. McCain. However, it needs to be remembered that large ships take considerable time to turn or bring to a halt. For the collisions discussed here, it should be remembered that the destroyers are considerably more nimble than large container ships and tankers. There’s no cutting in front of a tanker just because you in theory have the right of way!

For the USS John S. McCain/Alnic MC-collision, the Singapore Strait feature a traffic separation area which adds another factor into the equation. This can be described as a highway of the sea, where westbound traffic all flow in a northern lane, with eastbound flowing in a southern lane, and in between there is a off-limits separation zone (virtual roundabouts allows vessels to enter ports in the area). These are found in other narrow areas with relatively heavy shipping as well, including the Gulf of Finland. The collision seems to have taken place just at the entrance to the traffic separation area. It is possible that these special arrangements would have caused one of the vessels to make unexpected course adjustments, or that a third vessel did something which caught the attention of the bridge watch to the extent that they did not notice the more immediate danger.

There has been a number of speculations in that there would be foul-play such as GPS-spoofing or hacking of key systems would have caused the accidents. However, as described above the COLREG does not depend on the position of your vessel, nor does it allow the bridge watch to depend upon systems such as AIS for watchkeeping. Regardless of if some of these were out of order, the watch need to observe the position of the other vessels around it and react accordingly (i.e. keep a safe distance and give way to vessels according to relevant rules). Even if something was hacked or the GPS was out of order, and to my understanding there is no indication of this being the case, this should not cause a collision in and by itself.

The helm of the USS Fitzgerald, manned by Cmdr. Velez, then commanding officer of the destroyer. Source: U.S. Navy photo by MCS 1st Class Jennifer A. Villalovos via Wikimedia Commons
There has also been claims that the McCain would have temporarily lost steering, only to regain it later. This could be a number of issues, ranging from running into something physically obstructing the movements of the rudder, to something being wrong with the equipment operated by the helmsman, or anything in between the two. It is also unclear to me what exactly the ‘loss of steering’ include. For warships, there are usually multiple steering stations and some kind of last-ditch emergency steering which overrides any steering commands from the helm stations. However, if the loss of steering was only temporary, it might be that there were no time to initiate emergency steering procedures. It is also not uncommon for sudden and unexplained steering issues to eventually be traced back to the helmsman not fully understanding the workings of the system, e.g. how to properly switch between autopilot and manual control.

This brings us back to an issue which has been raised, and which I believe might very well explain the issues at play. The US 7th Fleet is severely overworked, with no time being allocated for training in the deployment schedule of the destroyers and cruisers. This in turn means that much of the training is handled while on deployment, with the older crew members likely overseeing younger ones during time they otherwise would be off-duty. In the end, this likely leads to the crew as a whole being less rested. The background to this is obviously the lack of any frigates or corvettes in the US Navy, meaning that the destroyers and cruisers has to do a host of tasks which they are overqualified for, and with tensions with China increasing the need for qualified ships are going up as well. The LCS-project was meant to solve part of this issue, providing a light ship for patrol and flag-waving duties were a destroyer isn’t needed, but as is well-known this has run into problems and delays.


A Squadron from the North

Few readers of the blog are likely to have missed the fact that the world’s largest submarine and sole survivor of the Akula (NATO-nickname ‘Typhoon’) class recently paid a visit to the Baltic Sea for the Russian Navy Day parade. TK-208 Dmitriy Donskoy grabbed most of the headlines, but as with all good tricks, it’s when you watch the ball too closely that the magic happens.

Hieronymus Bosch: “The Conjurer” (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Baltic Sea the submarine completely lacked suitable weaponry, sensors, and quite frankly space to move around. However, the world’s largest surface combatant, Pyotr Velikiy (‘099’), travelled together with the submarine. In addition, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov (‘055’) and destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov (‘626’) both travelled to the Baltic Sea to join in the festivities from the Northern Fleet, with the frigate Admiral Makarov (‘799’) joining from the Black Sea Fleet. These surface combatants stood for the real increase in firepower, and deserve a closer look:

Note hatches for vertically launched weapons on foredeck. Source: FLVFOT, Flyvevåbnets Taktiske Stab

Pyotr Velikiy: at 251 meter long and 24,300 tons standard displacement, she is a huge vessel by any standard. Often referred to as a battlecruiser, because she packs significant firepower but lacks the armour associated with ‘real’ battleships. The Kirov-class was launched in the 80’s, with the goal of intercepting and destroying the carrier task forces of the US Navy by unleashing a barrage of P-700 Granit missiles. Originally named Yuri Andropov, she is currently the only vessel of the class in operational service. Powered by two KN-3 nuclear reactors supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Marshal Ustinov: the Slava-class of cruisers are the little sisters (186 m and 9,380 tons) of the Velikiy, and are made to perform the same missions of targeting enemy surface vessels (with the P-500 Bazalt) and functioning as flagships. The Ustinov was launched in 1982, making it seven years older than the Velikiy.

Source: Brian Burnell via Wikimedia Commons

Vice-Admiral Kulakov: the Udaloy-class are specialised anti-submarine destroyers with secondary air defence and anti-ship capabilities. While the destroyer is significantly smaller (163 m and 6,930 tons) and somewhat older (launched 1980) than the cruisers, she still represents a vessel of the same size as the current flagship of the Baltic Fleet, the air defence destroyer Nastoychivyy.

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Makarov: The odd bird out, Makarov not only comes from Sevastopol instead of Murmansk, she is also one of the few really modern warships of the Russian Navy. While the frigate is the lightest of the kvartet (125 m and 3,300 tons), she packs a considerable punch for her size with moderns sensors and weaponry (including the long-range Kalibr-cruise missile), and also feature some amount of signature reduction.

Notable is that Granit, Bazalt, and Kalibr all can come equipped either with conventional or nuclear warheads.

As noted, the current flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet is the Sovremennyy-class destroyer Nastoychivyy, which is the sole operational destroyer of any country permanently stationed in the Baltic Sea. In addition, her sister Bespokoynyy is in reserve/long-term storage. It is hard to overstate the boost the four vessels dispatched brought to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, traditionally one of the smaller fleets in the Soviet/Russian Navy. While all except Makarov are starting to show their age, they brought significant increases to the air defences available. Ustinov feature both the medium ranged Osa-MA and the long-range S-300F Fort surface-to-air missile systems, which are naval derivatives of the 9K33 Osa and the S-300. The Fort employs the original semi-active 5V55 missiles, while the Veliky in turn feature the upgrade S-300FM Fort-M system, which is longer ranged and sporting the newer 48N6E and 48N6E2 missiles. The Veliky also has the medium-range 3K95 Kinzhal (a naval derivative of the 9K330 Tor) and the Kashtan close-in weapons systems with autocannons and short-range missiles (easiest described as 2K22 Tunguska derivatives). The Kinzhal is found on the Kulakov as well. Makarov in turn has the Kashtan for short-range work and the Shtil-1, which in essence consists of Buk-M1 missiles in vertical launch tubes, for medium-range work.

In short: that is a serious amount of different air defence systems, and should have been of note for anyone interesting in drawing A2/AD-bubbles on maps.

The open-water anti-submarine capability was also given a considerable increase by Kulakov and Makarov. Up until now, the main sub-hunting force has been the six coastal ASW-corvettes of the Parchim-class, with open water capability largely resting on the shoulders of the fleet’s sole submarine Vyborg (an early Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class sub from the early 80’s) and the four Steregushchiy-class (light) frigates. This is a relatively small force, considering that the Baltic Sea is home to two of the world’s most modern AIP-submarine forces: the Swedish (Gotland– and Södermanland-classes) and the German (Type 212) submarine squadrons.

The escorts

The vessels arrived well in time before the parade, and the small squadron of Donskoy, Veliky, and the tug Nikolay Chiker was followed closely by both defence forces and media. NATO-vessels escorted the vessels throughout their journey, with the Norwegian Coast Guard shadowing them along the Norwegian coast, and then handing over to HDMS Diana and the Royal Danish Navy. The Danish Defence Forces had earlier stated that the passage of the vessels was business as usual, and that they would dispatch an escort. In hindsight it might not have been quite as usual, as the passage under the Great Belt bridge was escorted by no less than three Diana-class patrol vessels and a single standby vessel positioned just south of the bridge.

After this, the Russians got the attention of, well, everyone. The German Elbe-class tender Main followed them for a while, before the Poles showed up with landing craft/minelayer ORP Gniezno. The Swedes then tried to get the price for most creative solution, by having the Naval Reserve’s Hoburg (ex-ASW hunter Krickan of the Ejdern-class) intercept the formation (granted, there was probably a submarine lurking somewhere for more serious intelligence work). The Estonian’s in turn sent the joint flagship of the border guards and the police force, the Kindral Kurvits.

The Finnish reaction, or rather, the fact that there didn’t seem to be one, caused some people to voice opinions about Finlandisation and the Navy sleeping on their stations. While I am usually quick to argue for clear signalling rather than anything resembling Finlandisation (due to the risk of misinterpretation given our history), I do feel that this is uncalled for. On the contrary: it is painstakingly clear that the appearance of the Donskoy in particular was a PR-stunt, and the considerable buzz caused was quite likely an end in itself. The measured Finnish response was in my opinion a balanced way to acknowledge their existence, without giving them undue attention.

It is perfectly possible to maintain watch over surface vessels in the Gulf of Finland without venturing out to sea (especially in peacetime conditions when no one is targeting or jamming your sensors), and this is particularly true for a vessel with the radar cross section of the Velikiy. So the Finnish Navy seems to have decided that the squadron was not interesting enough to receive an escort.

Note however that the Navy did venture out to sea to get picture of the vessels, and not only that: the Finnish vessel has circled around to a position south of the Russian units (I have gotten confirmation that the pictures are taken from a Finnish naval vessel, and aren’t from Estonian sources). In my opinion, this measured response was likely the best one available. The Navy showed that they knew where the Russian units where, and that they weren’t afraid of maneuvering around in their vicinity to get the best pictures, without showing too much attention (easily interpreted as fear in the face of the Russian show of force).

Exit… Stage Left

The vessels again caused something of a buzz when the question was raised how many of them actually had left the Baltic Sea. According to Russian sources, all Northern Fleet vessels had headed North again, but the pictures used to show this were actually Finnish press photos from the Gulf of Finland. Eventually it became clear that Veliky and Donskoy had left (hat tip to Cornucopia?/Lars Wilderäng), and were indeed northbound. The Kulakov, however, was intercepted by Belgian and British forces while heading south, and no one seems to know where the cruiser Ustinov and the frigate Makarov have went (no one who is ready to tell, that is, I fully expect the defence forces of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea to have proper info on the movement of what might be the strongest vessels currently deployed to our pond). As is well known, the Baltic Fleet has received some significant reinforcements from the Black Sea Fleet earlier as well, and while unlikely, a (semi-)permanent deployment here can’t be ruled out.

A Gust from the South

Like the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale made a rare visit to Finland earlier this year. However, a significant difference between the two visits was that while the ‘Super Bugs’ were leased by Boeing to take part in two air shows and a short stay at the Finnish Air Force’s research and evaluation facilities at Tampere-Pirkkala, the French fighters arrived as part of normal Armée de l’air operations when they participated in the international Arctic Challenge Exercise. The French contribution was made up by six single-seat Mirage 2000 and three two-seat Rafale B, all of which were based at Rovaniemi AFB in the northern parts of the country for the duration of the exercise.

Rafale B from Escadron de chasse 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ at Rovaniemi during the first day of flight operations of ACE17. Source: Ilmavoimat / Minna Piirainen

The decision to send two-seaters was something which raised my curiosity already as the first pictures of the aircraft touching down started to appear. Luckily, while the Dassault did not bring an aircraft to this year’s Finnish air shows, they did have a nicely sized stand in Helsinki, where I got to sit down and have a chat with company representatives.

Dassault was keen to point out that ACE17 was an air force exercise that they as a manufacturer had no real connection to, they did confirm that the decision was made by AdA to send two-seaters in order to provide familiarisation opportunities. The three Rafales seems to have flown most of the time with a foreign pilot as a backseater, providing a “good opportunity” to show off the aircraft, as Dassault put it.

The choice of squadrons were also interesting. ETR 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’ is the operational conversion unit, responsible for training both AdA and Marine Nationale Rafale air crews, while EC 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ is the land-based strike squadron of the Force de Dissuasion, the French nuclear strike force. The third and final aircraft bore the badge of legendary fighter squadron EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, which is nominally a single-seat Rafale C squadron (focused on ground-attack) but which is known to have operated a handful of two-seaters to assist in the training of younger pilots. Especially the inclusion of the inclusion of the ‘Gascogne’-fighter is interesting. The nuclear strike role means that the squadron places a high emphasis on operations at low level and high speed (down to 60 meters over land and 30 meter over water, at speeds up to Mach 0.9 / 600 knots). While the Rafale’s automatic terrain following system wasn’t likely pushed quite to these limits during ACE17 (due to having a foreign backseater, lack of terrain data of Lappi, and height restrictions during the exercise), it certainly gave an opportunity to show of one of the strong points of the Rafale.

A Rafale being cleared while a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet takes off in the background. Note the MICA IR missile on the port wingtip. The data from the seeker head of this can be fused with the onboard sensors of the aircraft. Source: Ilmavoimat

Dassault assured that the fighter operated without issue over the Finnish north, with the most dramatic episode being a bird strike experienced during a sortie with a French pilot and a foreign backseater. Even this wasn’t too much of an story, as it was only noticed once the plane had landed.

Back to Dassault: While they naturally weren’t able to comment on the details of the request for information related to the Finnish HX-program, they did describe it as “very interesting as far as the opposing power goes”, noting the high-end threat environment the HX has to be able to operate in. As discussed at length last summer in a series of posts, Dassault’s solution to the Finnish request is to emphasise the complete package. “It is not a question of just technical capability”, as Dassault explains. “There’s no golden solution, but a mix of capabilities is needed.” In practice, this means that Dassault strives to develop all parts of the aircraft in conjunction with each other. With an eye towards the other eurocanards adopting the Meteor very-long range missile before integrating AESA-radars, Dassault’s representatives pointed out that they first focus on the sensors, and then integrate the weapons which can take advantage of sensor developments. A complete concept, multirole, and flexibility are the keywords when Dassault tries to sell their fighters.

However, all is not unicorns and roses for the French fighter. Early July, Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long article on the earlier Finnish fighter program which eventually lead to the choice of the F/A-18C Hornet. While the analysis was rather poor (see Twitter rant), it did for the first time provide access to the secret memo presented to the politicians outlining the reasoning behind the Air Force favouring the Hornet. Dassault’s offering back then was the Mirage 2000-5, which was the only fighter besides the F/A-18C/D Hornet that was deemed to fulfil the requirements of the Air Force. The MiG-29, JAS 39A/B, and F-16 (my understanding is that the C/D was offered, but I am unsure about exact version) failed to meet the mark. The Mirage 2000-5 is described in the brief as follows:

Mirage 2000-5 fulfils the requirements of the Air Force, but the aircraft’s maintenance system is difficult for us, and life-cycle costs are probably in the higher-end owing to the small user base.

At around the same time as the article was published, impeached Brazilian president Rousseff gave her testimony on the choice of JAS 39E/F Gripen for the Brazilian Air Force. At 1:25 and forward in the video below, she describes the Rafale as having “extremely high” maintenance costs (compared to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and JAS 39E Gripen).

The Rafale is significantly easier to maintain compared to the Mirage 2000, mainly thanks to the automated fault detection software and smarter component layout of the Rafale. In practice, maintenance tasks are further in between and each individual task takes roughly half the time they did on the Mirage. Depot-level maintenance has also disappeared altogether. The Finnish comment from 25 years ago puzzles me. It seems this would indicate some kind of major difference in how maintenance was handled between the US Navy (for the Hornet) and the Armée de l’air (for the Mirage). I am unsure what kind of difference this would have been, and whether it still exists and affects the chances of the Rafale in HX.

Dassault is also looking over how the maintainers are trained, bringing something as rare as a maintenance simulator into play. The Oculus Rift-based software was demonstrated in Finland at the Kaviopuisto Air Show. The idea is that an instructor together with up to ten trainees can inspect a complete colour coded Rafale in virtual reality, where it is possible to move around freely and look at the components being discussed, without being restricted by the size of how many pairs of eyes can look through an open maintenance hatch at the same time. Being able to pass through structures and look at how different components connect together to form the complete system is also a significant benefit. The system has been pioneered on the Dassault Falcon-series of business jets, and is currently being rolled out for Rafale training.

For Rousseff, she obviously has an interest in painting the decision to buy Gripen as a clear-cut case. However, together the two reports does create the impression that this might not be the French fighter’s strongest point after all. I tried to contact Dassault for a comment, but have unfortunately not received a reply (possibly due to summer vacations). This will likely be a point that the blog will return to in the future.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Rafale undergoing landing gear tests during maintenance. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa.

Another point of great interest is the recent carrier-based operations over Syria and Iraq. A great write up on these can be found at the Liveifst-blog by Shiv Aroor who visited the homebase of 11F, one of three Rafale M units, at Landivisiau. An interesting tidbit is the description of a mission by two Rafale M to intercept and record the attack mode of the Su-33’s N001K radar when the carrier-borne fighters were operating of the Admiral Kuznetsov over Syria in 2016. The mission eventually ended in success, with the Rafale’s integrated SPECTRA electronic warfare system now featuring yet another radar mode in it’s library.

An SDV goes Gävle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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