Developing: Skirmishes in the Sea of Azov

Russia effectively began blockading Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov earlier today when sealing the Kerch Strait by placing a merchant vessel across the sea lane passing under the Kerch Strait bridge and forcing a small convoy of Ukrainian vessels to head back. The incident included vessels of the two sides making contact with limited damage. However, pictures have surfaced of another Russian Border Guard vessel with damage apparently from a collision, and it is unclear if more vessels than originally reported were involved, if the incident is unrelated, or if the pictures are old.

However, a while ago reports started coming in that a firefight have taken place. Apparently the first casualty was Ukrainian patrol craft (gun) Berdyansk (pennant U175) which reportedly lost propulsion. After that Russian forces tried boarding the vessel, with Berdyansk returning fire.

Berdyansk is a relatively new unit, having been launched only in 2016. Source: Ukraine MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what has taken place since is even more unclear, but it should be remembered that the closing of the strait lead to a significant number of civilian vessels being stuck in the area waiting for things to clear up that they could continue their journeys. There is a very real risk for these, including both Russian and Ukrainian ones, being caught in crossfire. Significant air activity was also observed throughout the day, including Su-25 attack aircraft and armed Ka-52 attack helicopters. One report stated that following the exchange of fire both Berdyansk, sister Nikopol, and a naval tug has been captured by Russian forces, but currently the word is that six Ukranians are wounded, two vessels are under tow by friendlies, and one vessel is held by Russian forces.

The Kerch Strait after hostilities had started. The connection across is roughly 15 km in length. Source: Marinetraffic.com

Unconfirmed reports have stated that the Ukrainian Navy has left its base in Odessa, but it is very unclear if this indeed has happened, what vessels are at sea, and if there is some battleplan. The Russian Black Sea Fleet together with air and ground units will have no problem stopping the Ukrainian Navy if they try to force passage through the strait. The sole major surface combatant of the Ukrainian Navy is the Krivak III-class frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130). It should be noted that the Krivak III was the coast guard-version of the class, and while very heavily armed for a coast guard vessel, it still lacks any kind of anti-ship missiles. The Ukrainian Navy has a number of older fast attack craft as well, but their operational status is unclear. If this motley flotilla is supposed to survive, let alone do any damage to their Russian counterparts, it will need some serious air support.

Ukrainian flagship Hetman Sahaydachniy. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Both Ukraine and Russia have large numbers of aircraft in the region, including Su-24M which while old still can do serious damage to surface units, especially as the target vessels in many cases are old as well with limited air defences (though it should be noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet include a number of modern corvettes and frigates which likely will eat Su-24s for breakfast). For Ukraine the question is where any potential battle would take place, as the Kerch Strait is ‘behind’ occupied Crimea. If Ukraine is to secure even limited air superiority, the battle will likely have to take place somewhere else, which might require the Russian Navy cooperating. Another question is if things could now deescalate as it seems the active battle at the strait has died down following the Russian capture of one of the vessels involved? There is no longer an urgency on the part of the Ukrainian to rush headlong into the waiting Russian forces.

Ukrainian Su-24M armed with unguided rockets. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the wheels might already be in motion, and a serious question is at what level command currently rests on both sides? If the politicians have transferred operational decisions to the military things could keep on escalating. In the same way, decisions by local commanders in the field can have outsized impacts upon the continued developments on the Russo-Ukrainian War as a whole. This would not be the first time that politicians have had to come to grips with the fact that measured escalation is difficult.

In the end, a conflict over Russia blockading the strait has been one of the scenarios discussed numerous times since 2014, and as predicted it shows signs of escalating easily. A crucial factor regarding the timing is that Europe is focused upon Brexit, diminishing the potential of EU to work as a stabilising factor. At the same time, it should be remembered that early reports seldom are to be trusted, and by tomorrow morning we should all be wiser.

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The Long and the Short of Finnish Guns

The Finnish Army learned to love artillery during the Second World War. There never seemed to be enough of it to cover all needs, and the Red Army always seemed to have plenty enough. At the same time, air support was even scarcer, meaning that if you wanted to produce any kind of effect on the other side of the hill, you either had to send in someone on foot or bring the artillery to bear. Like conscription, massed artillery was one of those ideas the Finnish Defence Forces clinged to even when it seemed obsolete to most western observers.

Artillery is also wonderful in that working artillery pieces have an extremely long lifespan. Sure there are developments, but getting hit by 130 mm shrapnel hurts as much today as it did in Golan 1973. Still, everything comes to an end, and unfortunately for the Finnish Army quite a lot of things are coming to an end at roughly the same time.

The Heavy-hitters

For much of the Cold War the stalwart of the Finnish Defence Forces was made up of Soviet artillery systems, with a number of wartime British and German pieces thrown in for good measure. After the German reunification Finland also bought large number of 152 mm field guns and howitzers from ex-DDR stocks. However, dwindling and aging ammunition stocks have meant that all howitzers are withdrawn, with two battalions of 152 mm 2A36 guns and six battalions of 130 mm M-46 being left in service (note that the figures of wartime strengths should be taken with a grain of salt, as the Finnish Army rarely acknowledges the number of individual systems. These figures are the ones found in a trusted open source for 2018).

130 K 54, as the 130 mm M-46 field gun is known locally, during live firings in Northern Finland 2015. Source: Maavoimat FB

Both of these are expected to be phased out within the next few years, effectively reducing the number of Finnish towed heavy artillery by 45%. Left in service will be the 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, two domestic field guns firing NATO-standard 155 mm rounds. The K 83-97 is an 80’s design featuring an L/39 barrel, while the K 98 is a more modern piece with a L/52 barrel and an APU, a small engine allowing the gun to drive short distances under own power and thereby significantly aiding in the handling of the gun.

Amongst the self-propelled pieces 48 modern K9 Thunder 155 mm SPGs are being introduced. These highly efficient weapons will replace the already retired 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm SPGs and the still serving 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPHs. However, the number is low enough that non-mechanised units are unlikely to see any self-propelled artillery. As such there is a gap evident amongst the mid-tier (regional) units of the wartime Finnish Army, where the retirement of the Soviet guns will be felt most keenly at the brigade level and above.

155 K 98 during the celebrations marking the 100 year anniversary of the return of the Jaegers, held in Vaasa in February 2018. Source: E. Häggblom

The obvious solution is to buy more guns. However, this is not necessarily as simple as it sounds, as heavy towed guns have rapidly fallen out of fashion. The few guns found in production, such as the US M777 and the Pegasus of Singapore, are often tailored toward expeditionary roles requiring them being airmobile. This leads to extremely low weight, but while lightweight guns generally are more fun and easy for the crews to operate, manufacturing gun parts from titanium comes at a price. A hefty price. The Australian DCSA request from 2008 comes in at 4.35 million USD a piece for 57 howitzers of the newest M777A2 version, though that included a SINCGARS radio for each set as well. The following year BAE bagged an order for 63 more M777A2 for USMC and Canada at a unit cost of a more decent 1.9 million USD. Still, that’s a far cry from the 500,000 Euro that the Finnish Defence Forces paid for its 155 K 98 ten years earlier.

The big factor as noted is the weight. The K 98 comes in at 14.6 tonnes, over 10 tonnes more than the 4.2 tonnes of the M777. However, the comparison isn’t a direct one, as the K 98 is a hybrid gun-howitzer while the M777 is a ‘pure’ howitzer sporting the somewhat shorter L/39 barrel length. However, thanks to developments in ammunition the M777 can also push out its rounds to the coveted 40 km range, making the difference in performance smaller (at least on paper, you won’t see accuracy figures of the two systems in open sources anytime soon).

At close to two millions a piece and requiring a towing vehicle (in theory the M777 can be towed by a HMMWV though in practice this is often handled by a 6×6 truck), a single gun system with gun and tower likely comes in at close to 2.5 million euros. And at that price-point something else appears. 

Enter the Nexter Camion équipé d’un système d’artillerie, or CAESAR 8X8 for short, a 155 mm L/52 gun on a Tatra chassis. The 16 systems bought by the launch customer Denmark, including initial spares and a 10 year service agreement, comes in below 2.7 million euros a piece. While critics have decried the baseline CAESAR 6×6 as not offering any protection for the gun crew I feel the comparison is unfair. After all, at the price point the system is found the real competition is not the K9 or PzH 2000, but rather towed systems. And being mounted on an all-terrain truck it offers superior mobility without the need for a dedicated towing vehicle, while the lack of crew protection is the same. Replacing the Soviet designs with more 155 mm systems would simplify logistics, as all heavy systems would employ the same 155 mm NATO standard munitions. As such the question is raised if we shouldn’t just place an order for 100 CAESARs to replace the retired guns starting in 2020?

The original French CAESAR 6×6 during a live firing exercise in Afghanistan in 2009. Source: Teddy Wade, U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the first issue is money. Even considering economics of scale the order would like come in at 200 million Euros, money which is hard though not necessarily impossible to come by. The other question is – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly – whether a self-propelled system is objectively “better” than a towed one? Not necessarily, especially not in the tight confines of Finnish terrain (i.e. forests). Handling the gun when you can’t get rid of the truck quickly can be more difficult, while the difference in height is evident from the pictures above. Protection of the system (as opposed to the crew) does become something of an issue. While the better part of a towed weapon can be hidden by a berm the height of a standing person, the truck needs, well, a truck-height of cover. These obstacles aren’t impossible to overcome, but for a traditional role towed systems might actually offer some benefits.

But what about avoiding counter-battery fire, I hear you say? Well, up until now the answer has been that when the guns in an individual battery are spread out so that there’s 400 to 800 metres between each gun counter-battery fire becomes ‘difficult enough’, with no need for shoot-and-scoot tactics. Also, even if there’s no need for a towing vehicle, the amount of rounds carried by a CAESAR is limited, and there would quickly appear a need for a ammunition truck. Towing trucks are also nice in that they are versatile, and you can replace lost towing trucks from general stocks (or use trucks who lost their guns as general cargo carriers) as the need arises.

Everything in the reasoning above is obviously also relevant for other wheeled SPGs of the same class, such as the Israeli ATMOS. 

The suggested marriage of a 155 K 98 to a Sisu 8×8 chassis. Source: Patria briefing to the Parliamentary Defence Committee 

Could a new domestic gun come into the picture? Possibly, Patria has been pushing for a ‘Finnish CAESAR‘ as a way of maintaining artillery know-how in-country. However, while it is certainly true that the proud Finnish tradition of manufacturing high-end artillery is threatened, the question is if it is too late already? The last newly developed weapon was twenty years ago, and even if one wanted to avoid developing something new and instead simply restarted the 155 K 98-line it is seldom a simple and straightforward process to restart production lines which have laid dormant for 15+ years. At least if we want a competitive price, going abroad might be the only option, at which point license production can then be discussed to maintain domestic know-how.

So are there no options left that would offer Finland 100 guns for less than 200 millions? 

Well, Nexter has noticed that there is a gap in the market, not the least because the Indian Army has a requirement for 1,400 towed 155 mm L/52 guns. To answer this they have launched the Trajan, based heavily on the gun used by the CAESAR. Little information is available, but the gun pushes the range out even further with 52 km range being given for specialised shells, it has an APU, and the weight comes in at 13.0 tonnes. Not a lightweight by any standard, but no worse than the 155 K 98. The rough price for the Indian order would be 714,000 Euros per gun. The main issue is that the Trajan is still just a prototype, and the Indian connection unfortunately makes it somewhat suspicious. It is unclear whether non-Indian exports would be ‘pure’ Nexter systems.

In the same competition Elbit is also offering a corresponding system, called ATHOS. Few hard details are known about the system, which is closely related to the wheeled SPG ATMOS that beat CAESAR in the original Danish competition (more than one commentator has questioned whether the rerun which lead to the CAESAR being ordered was based on facts or politics). The weapon does feature an automatic laying capability and an automated ammunition handling system (i.e. a hydraulic crane/lift). From a Finnish viewpoint, there’s the added twist of the Tampella-ancestry.

The D-30

But the headaches of the Finnish Defence Forces doesn’t end there. There are quite literally hundreds of 122 mm D-30 light howitzers that are still filling the role as battalion level assets throughout most Army units. They will stay on longer than the heavier Soviet stuff, but they are also heading out as 2030 approaches.

But if the market for 155 mm howitzers is small, the market for light howitzers is next to non-existent. Certain light guns and mountain howitzers are still found, but the answer to what should replace the 122 mm howitzer is not necessarily another light howitzer.

The flatter trajectory of the howitzers and guns compared to mortars makes it easier to hide the firing positions at the edge of forests. Here the venerable 122 mm D-30 in action. Source: Maavoimat FB

The D-30 provides basic indirect fire with high-explosive shells, smoke, and illumination. They also provide an anti-tank capability, though it is questionable to what extent an 122 mm howitzer shell, even an armour-piercing one, actually can damage anything heavier than an APC. At the same time the introduction of hard-kill systems on tanks means that indirect and direct fire artillery is becoming more interesting again in the AT-role.

The obvious answer is getting more 120 mm heavy mortars. Lots of mortars. The range is not quite the same as the D-30, but on the other hand the lower muzzle velocity allows for thinner walls in the round, which leads to a 120 mm round packing almost the same explosive power as some 155 mm rounds. And while direct fire isn’t possible, the AT-role can be handled with Pansarsprängvinggranat m/94, or STRIX as everyone except the Swedish calls Saab’s endphase-guided anti-tank mortar round. Mortars, due to their steeper trajectory, require more open space to fire to make sure they don’t hit any trees overhead, but are also lighter and more easily moved compared to howitzers. As such they just might provide the answer to the loss of light howitzers, even if that would be a step back capability-wise in some aspects.

The Headache

Artillery remains a priority amongst the Finnish Defence Forces, but there are some serious gaps coming up within the next decade. Besides the Soviet guns and howitzers on their way out, the RM-70 light rocket launchers are also about to be retired. In addition, modern rounds aren’t cheap, with guided once such as the Excalibur costing tens of thousands a piece (60,480 Euro a piece for the Excalibur to be exact). To be able to maintain a modern and large artillery arm, the Finnish Defence Forces will have to invest considerable sums during the 2020’s.

After the strategic acquisitions for the Navy and Air Force, I will argue that the Army should initiate a study for the best complete package of indirect fires to replace outgoing systems, followed by a strategic acquisition program along the lines of HX and Squadron 2020 to try and secure extra-budgetary funds to implement the program. This certainly won’t come easy, but even 1/20th-part of what HX is getting could prove to be the difference between massed enemy casualties and a repeat of the Winter War situation if we would face a war in 2030. As such, this would thoroughly be a strategic acquisition, though with artillery being less sexy than jet fighters, it might require more communication to get through the parliament.

Big thanks to Luke O’Brien who provided useful insights into the world of artillery and patiently answered my questions regarding the general state of modern artillery. All mistakes and groundless speculations are all my own making.

Review: Höstsol & Höstregn

Prominent Swedish blogger Lars Wilderäng (Cornucopia?) made something of a splash amongst the Swedish defence community when he released his first novel Midvintermörker in 2011, widely hailed as the best Swedish techno-thriller since the Cold War. This was followed by the final part of the two-book series, before Wilderäng temporarily left near-future wars for other topics. Last year he finally returned to the battlefield with the book Höstsol (ISBN 9789176795439), which received it’s finale earlier this year with Höstregn (ISBN 9789176795842).

As with the earlier series, the books describe how an escalating crisis eventually evolves into war, and how the Swedish Defence Forces and general society respond to the challenge. In typical Clancyesque fashion the narrative follow a number of persons at different positions whose lives are affected by the war in one way or the other. The characters enter and exit the story throughout in varied fashions, and with the exception of a handful of the main cast most remain rather flat to the reader. The decision is understandable, this is a story about a major war, and to try and tell too many stories in-depth at once would quickly have made the books twice as thick as they are. Less well-developed side-characters feels like a fair trade-off to keep the number of pages manageable.

More disturbing is that especially in Höstsol a number of characters feel somewhat dumbed down. Yes Pjotr, you already mentioned that the whole of Gayropa is occupied by fascists, there’s no need to reiterate it at every turn. The portrayal of Swedish media is also a bit over the top in my personal view. These are largely the same issues that I disliked the most about Midvintermörker’s finale Midsommargryning, and they are especially tiresome as Wilderäng clearly is capable of writing interesting characters, Misja and major Bergäng being prime examples.

But to be honest these aren’t books read for the depths of the character gallery, but for the vivid portrayal of how a modern society copes with war, and for possible scenarios leading up to one. While not the first one to raise the topic, Midvintermörker was likely the single most important factor in popularising the ‘Gotland-scenario’, and in the same way Höstsol creates an interesting and plausible scenario for how a crisis involving Sweden could come about. Most fascinating here is the work performed to mask the beginning operations as something other than war, and while I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers, Höstsol’s strength lies largely in the questions raised around the politics and how ‘hybrid’ scenarios could be adopted to a Swedish context.

If much of Höstsol is a slow build-up to disaster, by Höstregn the reader is already in a full-blown shooting war. While the policy questions and study of international relations might not be as interesting, the quicker pace of Wilderäng’s war story makes the book the more enjoyable one from a thriller point of view. Still, there’s really no use in treating the books as two independent works, as the story is a direct continuation to the point that they need to be read together.

I am somewhat torn about my final verdict. I still feel that Midvintermörker is Wilderäng’s strongest foray into the techno-thriller genre, but Höstsol is (by now at least) considerably more thought-provoking from a national security point of view. There is a tendency in both Finland and Sweden to have a rather sharply defined view of what wars are and how they start, and Wilderäng’s latest works serve as (enjoyable) reminders that by now we should have learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to Russian military planning.

Recommended.

A Northern Battlefield

Following the ongoing debate over at the Royal Swedish Academy of War Science’s blog regarding what role infantry could have in fighting a mechanised attacker in Norrland, a Twitter-exchange erupted following a comment to the end of who the mechanised attacker would be? Surely the Russians would have better things to do with their mechanised units than to try and capture vast expanses of forests, fells, and bogs? The question deserves a closer look, as the answer by default holds significant importance to the defence planning of not only Sweden, but Finland and Norway as well.
Norrland is not of interest to the Russians due to anything found there (no, not even the Kiruna iron ore), Russia has enough undisturbed wilderness of its own. But the region is very interesting due to the proximity to the Kola Peninsula.

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Finnish Jaeger Brigade units out in the field during exercise in the northern parts of the country. Source: Finnish Defence Forces

The Kola Peninsula, and more generally the Murmansk-Arkhangelsk-Naryan-Mar area, are of immense strategic importance to Russian defence planning due to their role as the sole route from where to break out into the Atlantic to intercept the transatlantic supply lines of NATO, as well as providing the basing area for the majority of the Russian strategic nuclear forces. In particular the Russian second-strike capability is centered around the ballistic-missile submarines of the Northern Fleet (though a limited number is also found in the Pacific Fleet), and they would take up position in the Barents Sea from where they would fire their missiles in case of an all-out nuclear attack on the USA. In addition, the shortest airborne route between the US and Russia passes over the Arctic, meaning that the area plays a role in long-range aviation as well.
This leads to the Cap of the North (or Sápmi) being the left flank of the Russian strategic deterrent and the frontline of any attempt at stopping the US from reinforcing Europe. Geopolitics plays an interesting role as well, as Norway is the sole NATO country in the region. While it is highly unlikely that Norway or other NATO forces would try and attack the northwestern corner of Russia due to the risk of escalating a conflict into full-scale nuclear war, Russia could conceivably want to push the frontline westward. As far as Russia is concerned, for the moment there is no real strategic depth to protect their bases. The Norwegian town of Kirkenes lies only 150 km from Severomorsk, the main base of the Northern Fleet. This is well within firing range of the MGM-140 ATACMS used by the US M270 MLRS and M142 HIMARS systems. And once the front is being pushed westwards, the question where to stop remains open. Capturing e.g. Narvik and Bodø would significantly hamper the ability of NATO to recapture Norwegian territory, while at the same time providing forward bases from which to operate against the transatlantic supply lines (compare German plans for submarine bases in Norway during WWII, rendered utterly insignificant by the fall of France).

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Map of northern Europe, giving a somewhat different perspective of the region compared to the usual projections. Source: Google Maps

But Norway is a tricky battlefield. The country is relatively narrow and heavily mountainous, handing a relative small defending force near-perfect conditions to defend against a more numerous attacker.

Which makes flanking tempting.

There are three possible ways to flank the Norwegian Army, either by amphibious and/or airborne landings, or by marching through Finnish Lappi and Swedish Norrland to reach (or threaten) the Norwegian coast.
Now, cutting through Finland and Sweden to reach the Atlantic coast is no simple endeavour, the shortest way from Severomorsk to Narvik is a nice even 1,000 km, passing through Sodankylä, Pajala, and Kiruna, before following the Iron Ore Line to Narvik, the northernmost railway in western Europe. The roads are of varied quality, and getting any kind of a workable supply line through the region will be a challenge. The railroad networks are a chapter of their own, with the Finnish tracks not being connected to the Russian ones north of the Vartius-Kostamus crossing, and there being a gauge break between the Finnish and Swedish railroads.
However, the most distinguishing feature of the region is the sheer amount of real estate. Combined with the fact that for none of the involved countries, with the possible exception of Norway, will the northern theatre be their main front. While a Russian offensive undoubtedly could allocate more forces than the opposition, it is still highly doubtful if they would be able to muster a large enough number that they could lay down a solid frontline and protect the rear areas and supply lines. As such a likely scenario is that the Russian spearheads would be able to make some impressive mileage while battling bigger and smaller skirmishes, while the real decisive fight will be a drawn-out one between security forces and smaller Finnish and Swedish units blowing bridges and targeting enemy supply units.

Jyvälahden valtaus 3.1.1942: Viestimiehet kirkasjohdon kimpussa.
Finnish communication specialists at work following the battle for Jyvälahti, near Uhtua, in January 1942. Source: SA-Kuva

This is not without precedent as the fragmented battlefield is nothing new to northern Europe. In January 1942 two Finnish battalions (1,900 men in total) infiltrated 75 kilometer through enemy territory to May Guba, burned a major supply depot, and skied back to own lines with a total loss of 3 killed in actions and 10 wounded (in addition to scores of frostbitten soldiers). During the whole of the Continuation War large parts of the frontline north of Lake Onega were if not fragmented then leaking, and as it is likely that the main Finnish and Swedish units will be concentrated towards the population centras in the southern parts of their respective countries, a return to the same scenario would not be unlikely in case of an armed conflict.

Finnish Hornets at Red Flag Alaska 19-1

Yesterday I had the opportunity to comment upon the Finnish participation in Red Flag Alaska for Finnish TV-show YLE A-studio, and while I feel I got to bring up the most important points there I realise that it is in Finnish and that a few of the points warrant further inspection. As far as I see it, there are four main point regarding why the Finnish Air Force decided to scrap what is usually the annual main exercise and instead fly over with half a dozen F/A-18C Hornets to Alaska.

The need to train hard

As with a sports team, if you only face the same opposition time after time, at some point you stop progressing. You need to shake things up, get new ideas into your training and meet new competition (and preferably competition that is better than you) to continue developing. Red Flag is hands-down the best full-scale air exercise in the world, and getting to meet the trained aggressor units of the USAF on an instrumented range is extremely valuable. Especially when it comes to the air-to-ground role which is new to the Finnish Air Force, getting to practice with experienced ground-pounders is of immense value.

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Your run-of-the-mill US F-16 with a serious amount of mission markings. Source: Joni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

Northern Flag

The declaration of intent of raising the level of the Arctic Challenge Exercise-series to ‘Flag’-status, preliminarily named Northern Flag, would provide a boost in training capacity at home. As such, studying how the Red Flag exercises are led and handled provide valuable experience for the Finnish Air Force’s exercise leaders and planners.

International Cooperation

On the whole participating in international exercises strengthens Finnish ties to the west, is part of strategic signalling in peacetime and (hopefully) assists in setting up working inter-coalition ways of operating for wartime. Here Red Flag is just the latest in a long line of exercises taking place at home, in Europe, and now overseas as well.

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A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet taking-off towards Alaskan skies. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

HX

The timing of the first Finnish participation in Red Flag coincides nicely with the Finnish fighter procurement programme. Yes, planning for participating in Red Flag has been going on for years, but it’s not like HX suddenly appeared out of thin air either. While the main reasons behind Finland’s Red Flag-participation are likely found above, the insight into how modern air war looks in practice will without doubt be used as a data point when setting up the missions used in the evaluation of the HX contenders. A special point of interest is the participation of US Navy EA-18G Growlers. Getting to see first-hand how they integrate into a modern high-end scenario is extremely valuable, as they differ quite significantly from the rest of the HX-contenders in their role, making them harder to evaluate.

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A USN EA-18G Growler taxiing past the tower at Eielson AFB. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

A Dawn Raid in the Archipelago

The day started with what sounded like a rare but not unique message on Twitter by the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, the KRP:

The current search by the KRP in the premises of a company located in the Turku Archipelago may attract attention amongst boaters and holidaymakers.

However, the archipelago has seen some interesting developments during the last few years, and the innocent sounding tweet quickly caught the attention of Finnish security wonks. The developments of the day would soon show that the knee-jerk reaction was warranted.

But let’s start from the beginning: Airiston Helmi Oy was founded in 2007 as a non-public stock company for trading in real estate, and a number of the key persons behind the company were Russian nationals. The company has had just a handful of employees, and has consistently been showing figures in the red (as far as I know, it has never managed a single positive year). What has set the company aside from other failing attempts is however that a number of the real estate deals have taken place at strategic locations in the archipelago outside of Turku in southwestern Finland. The main location is Ybbersnäs in Pargas on the Finnish mainland, with another key location being the island of Säckilot.

Location of Säckilot

The sea lane to Turku and Naantali passes just four kilometers south of the island, with a direct line of sight in the south-east. The ports of Turku and Naantali are of vital importance to Finland in peacetime, but would be of even greater importance in wartime thanks to their location as far away as possible from the Russian border. Naantali also houses one of Finland’s two petroleum refineries, with a daily production capacity of 50,000 barrels.

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Naantali refinery. Source: Markus Rantala/Wikimedia Commons

However, companies and individuals buying houses in the Finnish archipelago for vacation homes are nothing out of the ordinary, and the large archipelago coupled with winding sea lanes means that quite a number of these are situated “strategically close” to the routes. Russian investments in Finnish real estate has also been rather high, owing to a number of reasons including Finland being a popular destination for Russian tourists and the stable markets coupled with rule of law making Finnish real estate an attractive investment opportunity for what used to be described as the emerging Russian middle class. The level of investment has gone down with the oil price, but numerous objects are found all over the country. 2016 an official report noted that a large number of Russian-owned real estate were situated in strategic locations and/or had other suspicious indicators connected to them. These included not only the real estate in the archipelago, but also locations close to airports and key mobilisation routes. The term “Hybrid War” was mentioned.

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M/S Hessu, former Kala 5, transporting a concrete mixer. Note decidedly non-naval colouring and new name. Source: MKFI/Wikimedia Commons

However, for Airiston Helmi things had turned even stranger when they in 2010 through the Finnish company Rederi Ab Fakir (part of the Alfons Håkans Group, a major player in Finnish towage and general shipping) bought two surplus Finnish naval vessels, the workboat Kala 4 and the launch Hakuni. When the Finnish Navy sells older vessels, they demand that the buyer repaint the vessel and change the name to avoid people mistaking them for active duty vessels. This is even a requirement when the vessels are operated by the naval reserve, but in this case Airiston Helmi was in a hurry and Rederi Ab Fakir left the vessels unpainted. The name was also kept, as Airiston Helmi “preferred it” over Rederi Ab Fakir’s suggested Kronos. Notable here is that in this case Airiston Helmi did nothing illegal, as the contract with the Navy only bound Rederi Ab Fakir to change the colour and name (it wouldn’t be the last time the Alfons Håkans Group and the Navy had a bit of a quarrel). Kala has however been modified and stripped of paint since, as is visible in photographs from today’s raid.

But things didn’t stop there. Airiston Helmi soon got into trouble with the local authorities, as the single-family homes they were building in Ybbersnäs and another location in Pargas both featured eight bedrooms each with their own bathroom, in what looked suspiciously much like a small hotel layout. The fact that one of the houses was actually marketed as one further raised eyebrows, and the company had to give official explanations to the city. The helicopter traffic between Ybbersnäs and other locations, mainly Latvia and Helsinki airport, in turn caused the neighbors to complain, but the complaints were dismissed. In addition questions have been raised regarding the exemptions that the company has received for buildings and dredging (though it should be noted that Finnish building exemption policies are notoriously chancy), as well as if they actually have permission to do some of the works that have been performed. And where does the money come from, considering that the company can’t show anything close to a profit?

Cue today’s dawn raid, executed by over 100 persons from the KRP, local police, Tax Administration, Border Guard, and Finnish Defence Forces. Simultaneously a numbered of locations were searched, and a no-fly zone was created over a sizeable area including both Säckilot and Ybbersnäs. No-one is saying much.

Searches are a normal part when investigating financial crimes. Assistance from other authorities has been required due to the geographical locations and the number of places where the search is conducted. Everything has gone smoothly and according to the plans. We have seized such material as is usually seized in searches investigating financial crime.

KRP doesn’t even mention the Finnish Defence Forces in the press release quoted above, but the Finnish Defence Forces confirm that they have “certain skill sets” which they are assisting with. The crimes investigated are money laundering valued at “millions of Euros” and serious tax fraud. The Finnish Defence Forces spokesperson denies that they have any interests in Airiston Helmi, but an anonymous military source contradicted the statement when asked by Helsingin Sanomat. According to the source, both FDF and SUPO (the Finnish Security Intelligence Service) have been keeping an eye on the company for years.

Again, operations of this scope are rare, but entirely plausible.

The Border Guard regularly cooperate with the Police, both sort under the Ministry of Interior in peacetime, and it is not far-fetched that the former would assist with boats and helicopters if there is an operation with several targets in the archipelago. The Finnish Defence Forces also have tight cooperation with the Police, often providing vehicles and special equipment when the need arises.

But it is hard to come up with a suitable need for FDF know-how or equipment in a white-collar raid. And what about the (unconfirmed) reports of the Border Guard having one of their two maritime reconnaissance aircrafts patrol the area of operations? And why is the no-fly zone in effect until Monday?

OH-MVO
OH-MVO, one of two Dornier Do-228 operated by the Finnish Border Guard in the maritime patrol role. Was she in the area today? Source: Own picture

Edit 230918 1100 GMT+2: It turns out that OH-MVO did visit the location before landing in Helsinki in the early afternoon.

Happy enthusiasts have already decided that Airiston Helmi is a GRU-run operation, complete with vessels for false-flag operations and barracks for spetsnaz units to stay in after infiltrating the country prior to war. It is a possibility, but I am unconvinced.

It is clear that GRU is far from the omnipotent force some authors would like them to be, if nothing else then Salisbury is the final proof. As such the hap-hazard nature of Airiston Helmi isn’t proof of them not being involved. However, it should also be remembered that money laundering is in itself a lucrative business, and there are a numerous reasons for people to want somewhere to stay for a night or two without having to sign a hotel ledger. And if you run a lucrative but highly illegal business, you might want to have some firearms handy in case the competition suddenly comes knocking. This would explain why the KRP chose to ensure that they have the necessary tools to subdue any resistance, including heavier protection and personal firearms (and FDF backup). On the other hand, the Russian cleptocracy makes the dividing lines between crooks, spies, and businessmen somewhat blurred, and even if Airiston Helmi would prove to be a non-political criminal enterprise (it should be noted that no-one is convicted of anything as of yet), it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination for the GRU to call in a favour every now and then (the smuggling case which lead to the abduction of Eston Kohver by the FSB comes to mind).

In any case, don’t expect any clear-cut answers from the authorities within the next few days. And if anyone says they know for certain what’s going on, chances are they are as honest as Airiston Helmi’s bookkeeping.

The Unlucky COOT

For the second time since the start of the Syrian Civil War, a reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the Mediterranean by the Syrian air defences this week. However, unlike the last time when it was a Turkish RF-4E Phantom, this time it was Russian Il-20M (NATO codename ‘COOT-A’) which was brought down. The friendly fire incident caused quite a stir, and the fallout is yet to settle.

HMS MONTROSE TRACKS RUSSIAN WARSHIP IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS
An Il-20M similar to the aircraft downed in Syria, here photographed when it kept an eye on western ships during exercise BALTOPS 14. Source: PO(Phot) Si Ethell/MOD via Wikimedia Commons

The loss of the Il-20 is by far the most serious aircraft loss suffered by the Russian forces in Syria. This is regarding both the highly specialised aircraft as well as the large crew of intelligence specialists (likely 10 out of 15 killed). The single Il-20 arrived at the very beginning of the Russian operation in Syria. The exact mission in Syria is unclear, but likely includes eavesdropping on enemy ground forces as well as signal gathering from NATO ships in the Med and unfriendly air assets in Syria. It seems a single Il-20 has been on strength throughout the operation. It was e.g. caught on satellite pictures back in March 2017, and is visible on Google Maps.

However, recently a total of three similarly looking aircraft has been spotted at the base, though these likely include the Il-38 (NATO codename ‘MAY’) anti-submarine aircraft which have been deployed to Khmeimim, and are based on the same Il-18 passenger aircraft. Much have been made of the fact that the Il-20 is based on an airliner that first flew in 1957, making it an ancient design by aircraft standards. However, it should be noted that this is not rare when it comes to larger specialised airframes, with the corresponding US type, the P-3 Orion, being based on the Lockheed L-188 Electra which first flew the same year. The C-135 family still in widespread western use is based on the Boeing 707, which made its debut the following year.

The exact target of the Israeli raid is unclear. Israel has earlier indicated that there is an Iranian missile factory being built in Baniyas, around 30 km south of Khmeimim. Iranian long-range weapon systems, including rockets as well as surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles, have always been one of Israel’s prime worries, and the transfer of these to Hezbollah has been a policy red-line. It now seems that Israel suspected Iran of dismantling the whole or parts of the production line in Baniyas and shipping it to Hezbollah. Israel has not made any further details public, but the Russian MoD in their presentation of the raid stated that four Israeli F-16 approached at low level, used the Il-20M as cover, and released GBU-39’s at three different targets, including a military base, a fuel depot, and an aluminium plant. A Syrian S-200 battery then shot down the Il-20M while trying to hit the F-16s (or the GBU-39s).

It is quite clear that not all factors add up in the Russian story. The GBU-39 is an unpowered glide-bomb, also known as the SDB for Small-Diameter Bomb. This means that the range is highly dependent on the altitude at which the weapon is released, meaning an Israeli low-level raid would have had to get very close to the target, largely defeating the idea of using the GBU-39 with its pop-out wings. It also seems that a single target, a large warehouse in Latakia, was hit by the raid. Interestingly, this was the same modus operandi used by Israel in a raid that leveled a warehouse close to Aleppo airport in July (the weapon was identified by pieces left behind). The GBU-39 packs a small warhead, and is generally not used against buildings. However, the small diameter of the weapons allow large numbers to be carried by a single aircraft, enabling this Israeli ‘death by papercuts’-approach. As such, it is entirely possible that the Russians identified the weapon used correctly (either based on the number of weapons released or by pieces found in the ruins of the building hit).

With regards to the friendly fire incident, it is highly unlikely that the Israeli fighters would have ‘masked’ behind the aircraft in any meaningful way. To begin with it would have brought the Israeli aircraft closer to the Syrian air defences, and it would also have put the Russian aircraft at risk, something which Israel has so far been unwilling to do due to political considerations. It is also notable that the S-200 is a semi-active radar-homing system, meaning that it will only home in on a target that is locked by the 5N62-radar. As such, this was not a case of a runaway missile switching target after launch, but of the Syrian crew misidentifying the Il-20M. They hit what they aimed for, they simply aimed at the wrong aircraft. Crucially, Russian MoD has afterwards stated that Syrian forces doesn’t have access to IFF-equipment to identify Russian aircrafts as own forces. Once the Il-20 was lit up by the 5N62 it stood no chance, as the aircraft completely lack self-defence equipment. A modernised version designated Il-20MS has been in the works for a few years, and feature both UV-missile approach warning and decoy launchers. However, the program does not seem to have moved beyond a single prototype, leaving the operational Il-20M defenceless.

F-16I
The F-16I is the workhorse of the Israeli Air Force when it comes to ground-pounding, and was likely the aircraft used in the raid. Source: Own picture

The Russian reaction was interesting. The first suspect was the French frigate Auvergne (D654) which would have fired a missile in the area at the time. Then it was changed to that the Auvergne had fired a cruise missile (France has sternly denied the Auvergne releasing any kind of weapon at the time), which had confused the Syrian air defence crew. Then the Russian MoD came out all guns firing, and declared that while it was a Syrian S-200 that brought the plane down, it was the reckless and calculated Israeli provocation that placed the Il-20 in the lane of fire. Russia would also respond in force.

Granted, from the outset it is clear that Russia would not respond in force to the “Israeli aggression”. Russia is very much playing the away-game if they would launch raids on Israeli targets, and while the small force of jets assembled in Syria together with naval assets and the long-range bomber force is plenty enough to make an impression on any Syrian rebels, the Israelis vastly outnumber them in the region. The Israeli Air Force is also on another level when it comes to quality, both regarding aircrafts, support, and training, and while things definitely would get ugly, there’s little doubt that it would end with a serious Russian defeat. Luckily for all involved, neither Putin nor Netanyahu was interested in escalating the whole thing, and crucially Putin shifted the Russian narrative to describe the situation as a series of unfortunate events leading to the accident. The very active Israeli communication, including the Israeli Air Force CinC major general Nokin visiting Moscow to present a report on the Israeli findings, is contrasted to what seems like a very low-key and late Syrian response to get their version of events out. All in all, it does seem like the risk for further Israeli-Russian escalation is low for the time being.

The big question is what happens now? Putin indicated that he would respond by strong measures to ensure better protection of the Russian servicemen in Syria. It isn’t hard to envision this including the deployment of further Russian SAM-batteries, though truth be told when it is your allies that are the greatest threat it naturally won’t do much good. The Syrian air defences, especially those in areas where Russian aircrafts regularly operate, will likely come under closer Russian command, something which likely won’t be appreciated by Damascus or the Syrian forces. Syria could potentially use the incident to renew requests for delivery of more modern air defence systems, as the more modern user interface of a system like the S-300 would likely significantly reduce the risk of blue-on-blue incidents. However, I have not seen any indication that this would happen, and considering that Putin seems to more or less agree with the Israeli narrative this is unlikely to happen.

If Russia chooses to up their game, one possible way to communicate intent would be to send the modern Tu-214R to Syria as a replacement. This would signal determination without escalating things. The aircraft has made a short visit to the region earlier, and nothing says it couldn’t come back. The major issue is that while the number of operational Il-20M is likely down to single digits following this, there are a grand total of two Tu-214R in service. Another option is the earlier mentioned Il-20MS prototype, which would offer continued ELINT/SIGINT operations with a level of protection.