Tapir lost

The biggest news from the front-line in Ukraine today is that the Russian Navy has lost one of its major landing ships, a Landing Ship Tank (LST) of the Project 1171 ‘Tapir’-class (NATO: ALLIGATOR). The vessel suffered a catastrophic fire in the port of Berdyansk, an Ukrainian port city approximately 60 km south-west along the shore from Mariupol. The Tapir-class is comparable to the more famous and somewhat newer Project 775 (NATO: ROPUCHA). Of the original 14 Tapirs built, most are decommissioned or in reserve, but two are found in the Black Sea Fleet and a third is in active in the Pacific Fleet. A good clip of the event is found below:

As mentioned the Tapir is old, dating from the mid-60’s, with the two Black Sea Fleet vessels having been commissioned in 1966 and 1968 respectively.

Exactly what caused the fire is unknown. Most reports mention a Ukrainian missile strike, which would be a Tochka-U. The missile system which in Russian service has been more or less fully replaced by the Iskander-M dates from Soviet times and reportedly has a CEP of 95 meters, meaning that you don’t aim for individual ships, but you could conceivably aim for a cluster of vessels tied up port-side together and wish for the best. This ‘fingers crossed’-tactic was apparently tried with some success against the Millerovo air base earlier during the war. Notable is that the Tochka-U can be equipped with a warhead sporting cluster munitions, which depending on your type of target could increase the odds of hitting something (though obviously the damage to whatever is hit would be less). The question has also been raised whether any Tochka-battery could have gotten within range of the port, considering the somewhat limited range of the system (120 km)? Again, lines on a map rarely tell the whole story, but e.g. the front suggested by the Finnish National Defence University would indicate that Berdyansk is within range.

Everyone’s favourite Turkish drone obviously also was included in the speculation, but the weapons used by the Bayraktar TB2 – the MAM-L – sport a very light warhead (the whole weapon tipping the scale at 22 kg). Of course, if you hit something volatile even a small warhead might do the trick, but getting a laser-guided weapon into the cargo hold (the most likely scenario if you are to start a fire with a light weapon) is rather hard due to a combination of factors (such as the discrepancy between the path followed by the laser beam and the bomb, as well as how trigonometry work when you lock a laser spot). Not impossible, but difficult.

A number of vessels from the Black Sea Fleet. Farthest to the right is those of interest to us, with Tapirs Nikolay Filchenkov (‘152’, currently in reserve/not active) and Saratov (‘150’) flanked by Ropucha Novocherkassk (‘142’). Source: Cmapm via Wikimedia Commons

There’s obviously also a number of other possible explanations, including Ukrainian special forces planting explosives or similar, but perhaps the most likely explanation is the boring one that a more or less overworked crew made a mistake that lead to a fire – an all too common event on vessels even without the added stress of being at war. Of course, being at war should also mean that your damage control crew is on rather high alert, especially if you sit within range of enemy ballistic missiles, but here again incompetence or humans being humans can’t be ruled out.

Alert readers might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned which vessel it was that turned into what I believe is the first combat loss of the Russian or Soviet Navy since U-956 sank USSR Deyatelny (ex-HMS Churchill) in January 1945. The reason for this is that both Tapirs of the Black Sea Fleet are possible candidates for the dubious honour. Orsk, the somewhat younger vessel, was seen on the location earlier, unloading BTR-82 armoured personnel carriers, most likely from a naval infantry brigade. However, there are also indications that she had already left the area and her sister Saratov – the lead vessel of the class – had taken her place at the quayside. She would reportedly have been carrying the munitions for the unit unloaded from Orsk earlier this week or late last week.

While I won’t make a definitive call at this stage, the Saratov-theory does make sense, and the fire which sport a number of secondary explosions also seem to fit a fire aboard a munitions vessel. A munitions-handling accident would also not be unheard of as a wartime fire-starter.

Notable is that some port structures, possibly including oil storage on the quay and/or nearby cranes, also seem to have suffered damage. As did at least one of two Ropuchas which successfully sped out from the port during the fire. These are reportedly the Black Sea Fleet-vessels Tsezar Kunikov and Novocherkassk – being true youngsters among the Russian amphibious ships in having been commissioned only in 1986 and 1987 respectively – of which the Kunikov had a quite sizeable fire visible on deck while leaving Berdyansk. This might turn out to be relatively minor damage if it is a case of burning debris having been flung away by the hot air and explosions on the Saratov(?) and then landed on the vessel, though as a rule of thumb you don’t want open flames on a vessel. The status of Novocherkassk is more unclear, but some damage looks likely here as well.

The impact on the war is likely to be modest. If there is half a battalion, especially a fresh elite unit such as naval infantry, now running around without munitions that is obviously bad, especially as Russia so far seem to struggle with their logistics flows even when they aren’t interrupted by massive fires. The loss of the vessel is likely to be felt in the long-run for a country that has seen a total of two LSTs built in the last 30 years, and it will impact the ability to project power in the long run (the Tapir and Ropucha have been regulars on the Syria-run, shipping equipment to Syria to help Assad and the Russian expeditionary forces there). It won’t, however, directly affect the war for the time being as the concentration of six LSTs from the Northern and Baltic Fleets to the Black Sea means Russia should be able to cover the shortfall for now, and the amphibious threat to Odesa remains unchanged. If the port is damaged that is more of a headache for the continued operations against Mariupol and to the north from there, but the extent to which Russia had planned on using Berdyansk as a logistics node is unclear.

An interesting detail is that the earlier video of the Orsk unloading the BTR-82s showed them being hoisted over the side instead of driven off, a procedure that takes significantly longer compared to just rolling out through the bow doors. While it is true that the bow ramp of the vessel is low compared to many larger ro/ro-vessels and as such may not fit the facilities in the port, the low draught of the vessel means that there should be a number of secondary locations available for it to use, one of which you’d imagine would have a ramp that fits. The BTR-82 is also amphibious, so it should even have been possible to let them leave the vessel some ways away from shore and ‘swim’ the last part – something that is regularly seen practised on exercises. If the Russians simply aren’t in a hurry to get the vehicles into combat that would be one thing, but most indications are that there is indeed pressure from the top to get the stalled offensives moving again. Considering that the scene doesn’t show the sense of urgency that is to be expected, but rather it once again seems like ineptitude on behalf of the Russian armed forces.

The things we don’t know

Putin’s war in Ukraine has been described by many as the first live-streamed war, and tuning into Twitter or other social media it certainly feels that way. While we have earlier seen embedded journalists get close access to combat units, this time the journalists – both local and foreign ones showing great courage by choosing to report from Ukraine right now – have received company by any number of Ukrainian civilians sharing images, texts, and videos from their neighbourhoods. However, due to this there is an evident risk that people outside of Ukraine (and to some extent inside the country as well) feel that they know exactly how the war is going.

It is easy to step into this trap. The main bias is that reporters, bloggers, and other people who like to hear their own voice have a tendency to tell stories based on things we know – as opposed to describing the unknown. In a war full of remarkable persons and events there are certainly more stories deserving to be told than there is bandwidth. The other bias is that Ukraine has been remarkably effective in shaping the information space. This stems both from the Ukrainian political and military leadership skilfully setting the agenda, as well as from the Ukrainian civilians being surprisingly OPSEC-savvy and not sharing much in the way of images depicting Ukrainian movements or losses. There is also the obvious issue of the fog of war giving us a false picture of events (i.e. we believe we know something that later turn out to be false).

Despite all of this, there is a number of things we recognise that we don’t know, which in my opinion doesn’t get acknowledged enough in the stream of information out there.

So here it comes, a list of important things we don’t know.

The Ukrainian losses

We don’t know the Ukrainian losses with any kind of certainty. While there have been some official figures published by Ukrainian authorities, these are best treated with a grain of salt. The Russian figures for the Ukrainian losses are simply a joke, and the western intelligence agencies and authorities who supply what probably are the most reliable estimates for Russian losses are less keen to discuss the Ukrainian ones.

Naturally, the Ukrainian losses are a key metric when trying to understand how much of their pre-war combat potential Ukraine has left. Speaking of which…

The Russian losses

We don’t really know the full scope of the Russian losses either. The Ukrainian figures published are almost certainly too high. E.g. the US estimate for total number of troops killed – though notably described as a “conservative” estimate – is at half the number. Again, the Russian figures are a bad joke that is disrespectful towards their own soldiers.

At the same time, the best open-source resource which lists equipment losses – the Oryx-blog post kept by Stijn Mitzer and team – and only looks at visually confirmed losses has listed approximately half the number of tanks and a third the number of rocket launchers as the Ukrainians claim. The methodology is obviously set to give a too low number, as it isn’t an estimate per se, but still point to a discrepancy.

At the end of the day, we probably have a better picture of Russian losses than we have of Ukrainians, but even here we don’t have a comprehensive picture. It is rather unclear what it means for the combat capability of individual units or formations.

The Russian capabilities

That Russia has seriously performed below expectation in this war is well-established by now. There is a solid argument to be made that the initiation of the war was made with suboptimal preparations on the side of the Russians, with little to nothing in the way of preparation for the individual soldiers or tactical formations. There is also the argument that morale among the average Russian soldier fighting NATO or a country that isn’t part of the Russian-proclaimed East-Slavic brotherhood would be higher, which might hold water as well.

At the same time, it is also true that this really should be the ideal situation for Russia. Being the sole aggressor, surrounding Ukraine from three sides, and not fearing any other neighbour taking the opportunity to sort out old wrongs, they literally had all the time they wanted to set up this one perfectly. Was the military leadership hamstrung by the whims of Putin? It certainly looks that way, but at the same time once the shooting starts, you can expect something akin of regression towards the mean when it comes to true combat capability once a unit is sent into combat, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Instead we see presumed elite units such as VDV, the 4th Guards Tank Divsion (Kantemir), and the Arctic units such as the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade do downright stupid stuff and lose equipment through what looks like a combination of disastrous incompetence, poor logistics, and faltering morale.

At the end of the day, we don’t know the combat capability of the Russian forces. They seem to be a mess on many levels (see points above, the word “seem” might be doing a lot of heavy lifting here), but at the same time it still is the Russians and not the Ukrainians that are advancing.

The level of control

But while Russia is advancing, we also see that in many places the Ukrainians aren’t looking like they are trying to hold a solid frontline. We are instead seeing some key locations, mainly urban areas, being defended determinedly, and in the areas not defended we see continuous attacks by small units, indirect fires, as well as drone and potentially air strikes against smaller Russian units and logistics trains. Exactly how much control the Russian units exert over large areas of the land that they have presumably occupied is an open question. It is also notable that the Russian forces available – including the Rosgvardiya – are way too small to be able to occupy and pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population according to both most academic measures as well as practical experience post-WWII. So how much of the country is really cleared from Ukrainian troops? We don’t know.

The lessons to learn

The tank is dead. As is light infantry on the offensive. Airborne and airmobile forces are also. And not to mention the amphibious landing.

The limited Ukrainian fleet (20 active drones?) of the Ukrainian armed forces have proved surprisingly resilient. But again, we aren’t sure why that is the case, and how much of an impact they really have on the big picture. Source: Ukrainian Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The truth is that we have a very fragmented picture of the operations so far. Some ideas can indeed be said to have been proven to be less than stellar – such as sending tanks unsupported into urban combat, or airborne operations without adequate support. But truth be told these were disproven numerous times earlier as well. There are some interesting things to note, such as the issue Russia has with establishing air superiority, including stopping the relatively limited force of Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2s (36 vehicles and two fuel trains confirmed hit by the Bayraktars on the Oryx blog so far). However, these are still early days, and we don’t have the full picture of e.g. which weapons have been responsible for the spectacular images of some of Russia’s most modern armoured vehicles being reduced to burnt-out scrap metal.

Again, to some extent we are fed a curated version of the war by the Ukrainians, and it will only be in the years after the conflict when veterans and eyewitnesses on all levels are interviewed that we will start to be able to get a truly comprehensive picture of what worked and what didn’t in Putin’s latest war (and then we can start arguing about which lessons are general and which were due to the particular circumstances of this war). As such, for now we don’t quite know which lessons to learn.

Smooth Stones and Lightning

Finnish defence discussions have a few topics that quickly tend to derail into a somewhat unhealthy fandom, but few does so more readily than anything that has to do with the Ilmatorjuntaohjus 96, or Buk M1 as it is known internationally.

The Buk M1 had a rather short career in Finnish service, as the FDF quickly realised that having a system designed by the potential enemy might not be the best idea when it comes to such a technical arm as air defence – there’s a reason anything related to electronic warfare, radars, missiles, or SEAD/DEAD usually are among the most well-guarded secrets of any nation. The search for a replacement saw the NASAMS and SAMP/T face off, with the NASAMS taking home the price and becoming the new top-dog in Finnish ground-based air defences.

Let’s be clear, the NASAMS is simply a better air defence system than the Buk it replaced, there really is no discussion. However, as often is the case on the internet, discussions on capability has a tendency to be reduced to a top trumps comparison of specifications that are easy to describe with numerical values. And the top ceiling of the Buk is higher than that of the NASAMS.

Exactly how much of a difference is open to discussion. Most sources quote the ceiling of the NASAMS at around 10,000 meters, while others speak of 15,000 meters. The Buk M1 in turn is often quoted as going up to 22,000 meters (though some give a rather lower one, e.g. 12,000 meters). I personally have a hard time understanding the nostalgia for the semi-active radar homing 9M38 M1-missile that had turned 25 by the time conscript training in Finland stopped (something that does not mean it left the wartime forces at that time) and is well over 40 years old by now (I mean, if we really wanted something with altitude, we’d start shopping around on the second-hand market for the impressive S-200VE with it’s 29,000 meter ceiling and 240 km range…). It also deserves to be said that the F/A-18 Hornet-fleet is more than capable of taking on targets that attempt to sneakily fly above the NASAMS ceiling.

Still, air defence usually is best served by a layered approach, and it has been an ambition for the FDF to get back into the ground-based high-altitude air defence-game for quite some time. In 2018 an RFI was issued, which was followed up with an RFQ to five companies in 2020. The plan at that stage was to finalise the procurement before the end of 2022, but that schedule was adjusted last year – partly due to the pandemic having caused issues.

A Stunner-missile shooting away towards the clouds that are hanging over Palmachim Air Base in Israel. The Stunner is perhaps the best endoatmospheric interceptor in the world, and a surprise top-two in the race for a new Finnish GBAD-system. Source: United States Missile Defense Agency via Wikimedia Commons

However, last week we were treated to a surprise down-select, and it provided a rather surprising outcome. Gone were not only Diehl and always-bridesmaid-never-the-bride MBDA who keeps having a hard time securing Finnish contracts, but also favourite Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace and their NASAMS-ER. Instead we were left with two offers, both from Israel: the David’s Sling of Rafael and the BARAK MX of IAI. Neither system is bad, in fact they are both extremely competent according to all available public sources, but for the Finnish procurement there has been a feeling that they are simply too competent – and by extension too costly. An outspoken goal with the current procurement has been to get enough batteries to provide geographical coverage (it is easy to imagine coverage increasing through increased range, but for air defence that is to some extent a faulty line of reasoning as the difference in effective area coverage between two batteries with differently ranged missiles is rather small compared to what can be achieved through the ability to place more batteries in different key locations – remember that as opposed to e.g. anti-tank weapons the targets for the air defences are also constantly moving around and covering significant distances, at any point in time during which they can run into your air defences).

However, it is now evident that the FDF was more ambitious than just getting an average solution. Considering the timing, you would be forgiven to imagine the FDF having changed the scope somewhat following the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The force however denies that that would be case, and states that throughout the program capability has been the primary concern, which do makes you feel a bit sad for Diehl who tried to take on missile systems that sport some of the most advanced endoatmospheric interceptors on the market with their IRIST-T SLM.

Indian destroyer INS Kolkata firing a Barak 8 missile during the initial trials of the system back in 2015. Source: Indian Navy via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned the two systems left in the running are the BARAK MX from IAI and the David’s Sling of Rafael. The BARAK MX traces its roots to the ship-based family of BARAK 8-missiles. These originally kicked off as a joint Israeli-Indian project, though nowadays the missile family has forked off into two distinct national lines of Israeli and Indian versions respectively. The BARAK MX (with MX standing for ‘Mix’) is the Israeli land-based version and can hold a number of different missiles. While in Israeli service the BARAK is only used as a shipboard weapon, the weapon has been exported in land-based versions to a limited number of countries, best known of which is Azerbaijan.

The Azeri setup comes with both truck-mounted TELs and palletized firing units, truck-mounted BMCs (BARAK Management Centre, the solution is possibly containerised but I’m unsure based on the available pictures. Both container and truck-mounted versions are offered), and ELTA’s palletized ELM-2288 AD-STAR radars. There are also reports that Azerbaijan have acquired the ELM-2080 Green Pine radar (which sports one of the cooler code names around, more on this one shortly). The layout is rather conventional for a modern system. Everything goes on wheeled trucks (unless you want a hardened BMC), and when you arrive at your preferred location the trucks either point their missiles towards the sky or deploy their palletized missiles racks, both setups of which can handle eight missiles ready to fire. The radar is set up and everything is connected to the BMC which is the brains of the systems. Here it is also possible to connect the system to other sensors, to ensure that you have a situational picture that is up to date and allowing e.g. for ambushing enemy aircraft by turning on the fire-control radar only once the enemy target is within range.

The BARAK MX TELs used by the Azerbaijani forces during a parade in Baku. Source: Azerbaijan presidential office via Wikimedia Commons

There are no details about the Finnish offer besides the MX being paired with an ELTA-radar. The ELM-2288 AD-STAR in some version is certainly the expected candidate, though other details are likely to differ compared to the Azeri setup. When contacted, IAI kindly declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the acquisition program, so there is some guesswork involved here. An interesting detail is that the Finnish Defence Forces refer to the missile on offer as the LRAD ER. IAI in turn talk about having three different missiles: the point-defence MRAD (30 km range), the medium-range LRAD (70 km), and the booster-equipped ER (150 km range). The missiles are hot-launched, but still described as having a “low launch signature” – YMMV. When I contacted FDF they confirmed that LRAD ER is one missile and not an offer that include both LRAD- and ER-missiles. I tried to ask IAI if they have more than three missiles integrated – i.e. if the LRAD ER would be a new-version of the LRAD – but they referred only to three above. As the ER is an LRAD with a booster (think they same principle as the Aster-family), I tend to believe that the Finnish designation refer to the ER. This performance is more or less on par with the 160 km range PAC-2 GEM-T missile of the Patriot system (Robot 103A in Swedish service). However, there are two key difference in that the BARAK is equipped with an active radar seeker (i.e. the missile carries its own radar and will continue to home on to the target even if the main radar goes silent) while the PAC-2 is a semi-active radar homing missile (i.e. it relies on the ground radar lighting up the target). The second important difference is that while the PAC-2 is a single-stage missile (i.e. it burns until it no longer does so, and then it coasts along until running out of speed), the BARAK ER is in effect a two-stage three-pulse missile in that we first have the booster kicking off the whole thing, and the LRAD missile mounted on top of the booster then has a dubble-pulse engine, giving significantly more energy during the later stages of the interception compared to traditional missiles. The BARAK also has a vertical launch which gives the ability to cover 360°, though in practice the Patriot batteries are usually deployed so as to minimize the impact of their ‘blind’ sector – it is rare to find locations where you can be jumped on from any direction, unless you deploy on top of the highest hill in the area, and then everyone will see you.

There are reports that the BARAK MX took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Few Armenien air losses were documented during the conflict, none of which are attributed to the system. However, there are persistent reporting that during the final stage of the conflict Armenia would have fired a single 9M723 Iskander against the Azeri capital of Baku, and this would have been intercepted by a BARAK. The claims are rightly questioned, as to the best of my knowledge all reporting of the incident go back to a single story by a Turkish journalist, and there have been no independent verification. Verification of successful intercepts of ballistic missiles are also notoriously hard to make even in the best of conditions, and it is unclear whether Azerbaijan actually has the ER with its enhanced theatre-ballistic missile defence (TBMD or BMD for short) capability in service or whether it is relying on the shorter-legged missiles. As such, I would be careful with the ‘Combat Proven’ label for now, though the missile has since successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in trials.

But wait a minute, readers of the blog will say. Finland wasn’t supposed to get a BMD capability!

The answer is “Yes” (and just wait until you see the other guy).

Back in 2019, Finnish Chief of Defence general Timo Kivinen gave the following statement to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva:

No minor country has the resources to develop and maintain an active missile defence system. […] Finland has a passive missile defence system, based on an analysed and identified threat. The concept is based on protection, movement, and decentralized operations.

This statement was by no means unique, but rather one in the line of statements to media and in press releases where the same principle has been stated time and time again. Finland does not have any interest in ballistic missile defence through shooting down incoming missiles. So what is up with that, has the FDF changed priorities now under influence from the war in Ukraine and the liberal amount of missiles fired?

(Note that while that’s a serious number of missiles quoted in the tweet below, there has also been a serious number of airstrikes during the war, and of the ones mentioned only the Iskanders and Tochkas are ballistic missiles)

The short answer is “No”. The longer answer is still the same as it always has been:

The ability to defeat ballistic missiles has not been one of the project’s objectives. We have compared the performance of different systems against traditional targets.

In short, the BARAK ER and David’s Sling with its Stunner missile are simply better at killing aircraft and cruise missiles than the competition, and that’s why they are shortlisted.

But there will be an Iskander-killing capability, right?

Not necessarily. Having a missile capable of hitting the incoming ballistic missile is an important step, but only part of the equation. Since the target is ridiculously quick, getting pre-warning is key (remember the Green Pine-radar rumoured to have gone to Azerbaijan? That’s a radar that is dedicated to long range detection and acquisition of TBMs, exactly the kind of additional – and very expensive – sensor you need if you want to enter the BMD-game for real). That in turn means you want to know where it comes from so you can set up you sensors to detect it at optimal range (see excellent linked thread below by Simon Petersen, who as opposed to yours truly actually is a professional when it comes to these kinds of things), and that is a very different setup of sensors and deployment patterns compared to if you are planning on taking on aircraft or helicopters. This is also a key reason why BMD makes more sense for Sweden than for Finland, as the obvious firing location for Iskanders heading toward Sweden is from the rather limited direction of Kaliningrad, while Finland has a rather large sector of potential enemy TBM firing locations.

So, when the FDF is buying a BMD-capable system and still says they aren’t aiming for a BMD-capability, that’s what they mean. The missile might be there, and if someone is dropping an Iskander on their block they might be able to kill it. But if it is headed to the next district you are probably out of luck.

But if you were impressed by the BARAK MX (and you probably should be), wait until you see what Rafael brings to the table.

David’s Sling is system that resemble a Patriot battery that has decided to enter the near-vertical launch game. It is jointly developed with Raytheon, and is very different from, well, most everything found on the market.

The two-stage missile called Stunner has a distinct ‘dolphin-nose’ look, using the asymmetry to manoeuvre and to fit several sensors. Good manoeuvrability is a must, since the missile is a hit-to-kill one. This means that as opposed to most air defence missiles which flies close to their targets and then detonate to create a cloud of shrapnel, the Stunner will ram into whatever it is targeting at high speed. This is obviously a sure-fire way to bring down most everything, but also a very unforgiving way of operating in that a near-miss doesn’t give you much except disturbed air. To achieve the desired accuracy, the Stunner is a two-stage three-pulse missile as well, with the third pulse providing the speed needed to manoeuvre at the final stages of the intercept. The guidance is provided by several different modes of tracking, including an active radar seeker as well as a multi-function electro-optical sensor sporting IIR-capability. The batteries in Israeli service feature the ELM-2084 MMR S-band radar, which is a step up in capability from the ELM-2288 AD-STAR of the BARAK MX. Of interest, one of the smaller members of the MMR-family is the Compact-Multi Mission Radar ELM-2311 C-MMR which Finland bought and received last year for the counter-artillery role (though they do offer a secondary air-surveillance capability as well). The missiles are transported around on a trailer-type TEL (which might or might not be called a MEL, depending on your level of geekiness), which apparently sports twelve missiles ready to launch. During the test firings the combat management centre seemed to be a containerised solution, and while it certainly seems likely there’s really no telling for sure whether that is the solution used for operational batteries.

As opposed to the BARAK MX, David’s Sling is in Israeli service. The primary purpose is as the mid-tire defence against incoming missiles and heavy rockets, sorting between the short-range Iron Dome and the larger Arrow. Despite the original design purpose being solidly in the BMD-role, the weapon is obviously more than capable of bringing down more conventional targets as well. The performance is largely classified, with some sources stating the range at 160+ km (note that corresponds to a very round “above 100 miles”) while others give 300 km as the maximum. In any case, it is safe to say the range is longer than BARAK ER. An interesting detail is that the missile is being looked at as a possible replacement for/alternative to PAC-3 missiles for the Patriot under the PAAC-4 program, where the additional ‘A’ stands for ‘Affordable’. That is an interesting notion, as while the batteries themselves certainly cost, the munitions add up as well. It would be easy to imagine the Stunner as being a prohibitively expensive missile due to its performance, highly specialised role, and fancy sensors, but apparently that isn’t the case (though in air defence, “cheap” doesn’t equal “small amounts of money”). An interesting detail is that the US so far has been reluctant to let Israel export it directly, meaning that this offer certainly shows the trust and importance Washington places in Finland and the FDF. So far the only almost-confirmed export customer is Poland, which is planning to acquire it for their Wisła-program. The initial package will however sport the PAC-3 MSE, and the program has ran into some issues as the cost of integration into the Polish C3-system has caused the budget to expand considerably compared to e.g. the Swedish Patriot-order.

A really interesting side-track is that Israel, who by the way also happens to be a serious F-35-user, has test-flown the Stunner without the booster on an F-16. The possibility of having a highly-manoeuvrable air-to-air missile with multi-seeker capability is certainly interesting when going after small and/or stealthy targets such as cruise missiles, drones, and Su-57s. While so far no decision has been made  to integrate the Stunner on the F-35 and the FDF is currently not looking at the possibility of acquiring a joint-use GBAD/A2A-missile in the same way as the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently is being operated, it is certainly not something that is a negative in the books for Rafael’s offering. It certainly would be an interesting development, and let’s remember that the decision on what to get after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM is still open for the FinAF.

So where does that leave us? Both systems are reportedly easy to integrate into legacy systems, are already in operational service, and sport performance that would propel FDF GBAD into a world-class integrated air defence system on all altitudes and against all conventional targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, aircraft). The big question is whether there is the budget to acquire enough batteries and missiles? So far the FDF isn’t telling, but in an interview the budget is described as “significant but below the threshold of strategic acquisitions”. Considering the Squadron 2020 program was a strategic program and came in at an original budget of 1.2 Bn EUR, a safe guess is that we are talking about several hundred million euros, but below a billion. As a comparison, that would be below the Swedish Patriot-acquisition which is valued at approximately 1.1 Bn EUR, though that did include modernisations to the general sensors and C3-networks. The Swedish program include two battalions of two batteries each, both capable of independent operations but mainly used together to protect a single area. Depending on the Finnish doctrine and pairings with other air defence systems, something similar might be able to fit inside the Finnish budget, but that is largely down to how much other stuff will have to be paid for. As is well-known, the so-called ITSUKO which deals with the high-altitude capability is part of the larger air-defence framework that include a number of other projects, and as such the budget for the batteries themselves might be surprisingly similar for Finland and Sweden. If I had to guess, we will see the BARAK MX take home this one based on the versatility and the smaller footprint leading to greater mobility, but David’s Sling is certainly an impressive system and as we have seen performance matters in this one. It will be highly interesting to see what the next year brings for ITSUKO.

A Modest Proposal

It’s healthier to tie up one’s horse at the roundpole fence of one’s enemy, than that he would tie up at ours

Bishop Johannes Rudbeckius

 

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them

Jesus (Matthew 7:12)

The war in Ukraine is raging on, and so far the Finnish political leadership does seem to still be “looking” at what the options are to help Ukraine and to increase Finnish security. Let’s be blunt:

This war has not come as a surprise, but we’ve seen months of Russia moving units into position until it was more a question of when rather than if. As such, that there isn’t a ready plan is something of a failure of planning, as even if the Finnish politicians didn’t think that war was the most likely outcome, it should have been evident months ago that it was at very least a real risk and as such there should have been a contingency plan. Still, here we are, and in the interest of public service, here is what can and should be done:

Closer cooperation with Sweden (and possibly other partners as well)

While Finnish-Swedish defence and foreign policy cooperation is rather deep already, there are a few practical steps that can be taken swiftly and which would both serve operational purposes as well as provide valuable signalling. The lowest hanging fruit is to invite the Swedish Air Force’s intelligence gathering platforms – crucially the S 102B ‘Korpen’ and S 100D ‘Argus’ – to operate in Finnish airspace and potentially even from Finnish bases, Rovaniemi and Tampere-Pirkkala likely being the prime candidates in that case.

One of the two Swedish SIGINT-modified Gulfstream IV, designated S 102B Korpen. The two aircraft are named Hugin and Munin after Oden’s two ravens. Source: Luc Willems / Wikimedia Commons

The S 102B Korpen (Swedish for raven, having gotten its name from the ravens that flew all over the world to bring information to the god Odin in Norse mythology) are SIGINT-equipped Gulfstream G-IVSP, while the S 100D Argus (named for the all-seeing giant in Greek mythology) is the Swedish AEW&C platform, a Saab 340 with an Erieye-radar on top (the designation ASC890 is also used). Both are regularly seen flying over the Baltic Sea towards Kaliningrad, but are also doing regular runs along the Finnish-Swedish border in the north, trying to get a look into Russian airspace. Allowing them to fly in Finnish airspace would significantly increase their reach, and allow the Swedes to gather better information on what Russia is doing. In the best of worlds, they might even be ready to share some of the material with Finnish intelligence, as while the Finnish Air Force does operate a SIGINT-aircraft, there might certainly be some differences in the sensors carried that allow for the Swedes gathering data which we don’t have, and in any case we lack an AEW&C platform. Even if the Swedish intelligence community would not want to share their information with us, helping Sweden to have a better situational picture on which to base their policy decisions is certainly in itself valuable for Finland. The political signalling would also be a value.

Joint buys of ammunition and other materiel would also be something that both would increase the combat capability (and therefore deterrence value) of the armed forces in both countries as well as signal political resolve in both countries. As it so happens, the Swedish CinC has already provided a request to the Swedish parliamentary defence committee requesting permission to buy more ammunition, fuel, food, and medical supplies than planned under the current budget. As Finland and Sweden recently signed a framework agreements for how to jointly acquire ammunition, this is an excellent opportunity to show both resolve and cooperation in practice.

Joint exercises are more difficult to drum up at short notice, but a few things could still be done. Letting key people such as unit commanders and other high-ranking officers meet for discussions (preferably with photo ops of them standing around a table or out in the field and pointing at maps and things to show how serious the discussions are) can be arranged at relatively short notice thanks to their small footprint. Everyone’s busy right now, but clearing out a day in the calendar should still be doable. Having the commanders of the Norrland’s dragoons and the Jaeger brigade stand at the shore in Suomussalmi flanked by their chiefs of staffs and look over towards at Hulkonniemi would be a rather clear message to any potential adversary, and the importance of personal connections between officers at all levels can’t be overestimated. The same can obviously be done at the political level as well.

Similar kinds of things could preferably be done with other partners in the region as well. A high-profile visit by Finnish Air Force personnel to Evenes Air Force Base in the Norwegian high north to discuss F-35 operations in adverse conditions or the decision to jointly acquire more Stingers with Latvia could certainly fit the bill. However, as Finland and Sweden are two of the only European democracies choosing not to be part of a defensive alliance with other fellow democracies, it is certainly possible that many of the other countries are too busy doing internal alliance-stuff, and it might leave Finnish-Swedish cooperation as the most viable path in the near term.

Weapons to ukraine

This really should have taken place back before Russia invaded, and it is outright bizarre that Finland has declined exports to Ukraine – not just decided not to gift weapons to Ukraine, both from allowing them to buy Finnish-made stuff – with the logic that Finland don’t ship weapon to conflict zones. Besides the obvious stuff that this hasn’t been a show-stopper in certain earlier cases – such as the Patria AMVs appearing in Yemen – it is utter stupidity that Finland would play a part in setting a precedent that if Russia threatens war, other countries should not export weapons to the threatened democracy. But that is all water under the bridge, and the next question is what to do now?

The obvious fact still stand. It is in Finland’s interest to aid Ukraine with as much weapons and ammunition as possible. This argument does not rest on altruism – though you can make that argument as well – both on cold hard realism. Finland has only one possible military adversary in today’s world, and that is Putin’s Russia: a country ruled by a dictator that has outright invaded some neighbouring countries, propped up dictators in others, and supported (more or less organic) separatist movements in yet others, and which has as late as this week warned Finland (and Sweden) against us exercising our sovereign right to choose our security solutions. As such, few things would improve Finland’s geopolitical situation as much as a Ukrainian “victory” (whatever that means) in this war.

The cold hard truth is that every T-80BVM tank of the 200th OMB that is knocked out in Ukraine is one less tank in Pechenga, and that means less forces close to the Finnish border, and that in turn means less combat capability that Russia can use to threaten – or if the worst comes, invade – Finland with. It also means less funds for training and more of the training done being at a simpler level, as the focus in the Russian armed forces shifts to replacing lost equipment and personnel.

This is the cold face of war, that securing the upper hand usually means those on the other side of the border will die or otherwise be made to suffer. It is the grim reality we need to keep in mind when discussing these things, but at the end of the day we didn’t choose this any more than the Ukrainians. Instead, Putin did, and we need to be prepared for him actually staying true to his word when he keeps threating the use of force. As such, arming Ukraine builds Finnish deterrence as our relative strength grows, meaning that the Russian leverage to put pressure on us decreases.

So what can we do?

The obvious thing is the old AK-clones in different version. Finland has earlier bought numerous different foreign-made AKs, including from ex-DDR and Chinese stocks. Following the downsizing of the armed forces, word on the street has it that none of these would be used by the 280,000 strong fully mobilised force (with the exception of the rather limited number of foreign-built folding-stock rifles used by AFV crews), and already back in 2006 there was talk that they could be gifted to the Afghan National Army as the FDF didn’t want or need them. It is highly unlikely that the FDF would need them more now than they did back then, and they could certainly fit the requirement of simple weapons that could be handed out to volunteers in the campaign Ukraine has now embarked upon.

One weapon system that has not been mentioned is the sniper rifles that are becoming surplus in the near future with the introduction of the Sako M23 which will replace most 7.62 TKIV 85 (a highly modded Mosin-Nagant) and all 7.62 TKIV Dragunov. These sport calibres that are found in Ukrainian service and rounds which will be surplus to the FDF with the retirement of the rifles. While it is too early to ship away all, I would certainly believe that at least some of them could be declared surplus right away.

But the big deal is the NLAW and Stinger missiles. With armoured vehicles and massed helicopter assaults being among the key threats facing the Ukrainians, providing simple weapon systems that Ukraine already operate would be a significant addition the combat capability of the Ukrainian army. Also, the knowledge of more missiles being on the way will ensure that the Ukrainian defence forces are freer in using the stocks they already have. And from a Finnish perspective, again, tanks that become burning hulks in Ukraine won’t be used to intimidate Finland in half a years time.

But doesn’t Finland need these weapons for ourselves?

Yes, and no. The weapons are needed, but right now we are in a rare situation where Russia actually does not have the capability to perform offensive operations in our neighbourhood thanks to the better part of the units normally stationed nearby being in Ukraine. If Finland is quick (because we might not be the only one who wants to top up our stocks) to call Saab and Raytheon and place orders for more NLAWs and Stingers respectively this could provide a good opportunity to rotate stocks (granted the current stocks probably have plenty of shelf life left, so it isn’t urgent from that perspective), and still be back at having a sizeable stocks of missiles by the time the Russian units are back from Ukraine and have recovered from their losses. Obviously, that would require more funds, but the weapons right now would certainly do more for Finnish security in Ukrainian hands than in Finnish depots. And as mentioned, we have a framework for buying anti-tank munitions jointly with Sweden, so this would fit in with the idea of using that very framework as expressed above.

At least one T-80BVM is not coming back to Pechenga. This is – cynical as it may sound – beneficial to Finnish national security. Illustration by Erik Gustavsson / Public Domain

We are back to political will. If the political leadership is ready to grab the opportunity and prepared to pay for the costs, it certainly is doable (though the scale depends on a number of factors, many of which are classified).

Nato

Yes, we should have joined NATO ages ago. Nothing has changed, besides there now being yet another data point that non-NATO countries get invaded by Russia more frequently than NATO-countries. Why we wouldn’t want to build our security together with or European and trans-atlantic partners is beyond my understanding, and anyone arguing for us being safe from Putin’s anger if we just keep calm has a rather more difficult time making that argument convincingly following this week (though in all honesty this was clear to anyone willing to look at the world and make a sober assessment already in 2008). The exact form and steps taken to join can be discussed, and I leave that to other.

Though She be but Little She is Fierce – Minesweeping Capability 2030

The Finnish Navy is passionate about naval mines. This includes both laying mines – as evident by the liberal amount of minerails found on not only the dedicated minelayers but also on surface combatants and auxiliaries – as well as hunting for them. This has its natural explanation, as the Finnish coastline (and the Baltic Sea in general) is well suited to mine warfare, with the waters being shallow and many port facilities being found inside the archipelago where thousands of islands and skerries form narrow sea lanes and obvious chokepoints. Keeping the Finnish waters free from hostile mines is at the end of the day not a nice-to-have to capability, but is crucial if Finnish society is to function and the FDF is to be able to keep fighting for any prolonged period in a wartime scenario.

Mine countermeasures can be done in a number of ways. The easiest and most cost-efficient is usually to ensure that no mines are laid, preferably through simply blowing up the enemy stocks of naval mines while they are still portside, but in real life things seldom prove this easy. And even in the best case, ensuring that areas used for friendly traffic really are minefree is usually a must. This leads us to the two main ways in which already sown mines can be rendered harmless: minehunting and minesweeping. Minehunting is the use of sensors to find mine-like objects, which then can be studies in more detail either with other sensors or with clearance divers, and if found to be a mine the object can then be neutralised through a number of different ways – most commonly through simply blowing it to pieces. The other option is sweeping, which is probably what most people think about when hearing about clearing naval mines. This is done through towing wires to cut moored mines so that they may float free (and preferably be destroyed by something once they breach the surface) or through towing magnetic or acoustic generators which then create signatures that cause influence mines to detonate.

One of the Kuha-class vessels in the process of handling its acoustic influence sweeper. Source: Finnish Navy Facebook

In case anyone didn’t already figure out the main issue with sweeping: towing means that your ship is in front of the thing you use to disable the mines with, a decidedly bad place to be at. Different solutions have been tried to remedy this, including the use of helicopters for towing the sweeps, but at the end of the day these have all proved either costly or unreliable. Instead, the stoic men and women plying the sea to ensure it is safe for other ships to go there has adopted a simple maxim:

Hunt where you can; Sweep where you must

But why would anyone sweep if that’s so dangerous? The answer is time. A general rule of thumb is that a typical minehunter is able to clear approximately one nautical square mile (1,852 x 1,852 meters) every 24 hours, while a typical mechanical sweeper should be able to clear between 4 to 6 nautical square miles. Remotely manned systems usually log approximately the same figures as their manned counterparts. This also brings up one of the other issues with mine clearing, namely that it will require hulls. And every hull can only be in one location at any single time.

(For a more detailed discussion on everything naval minewarfare, I recommend picking up captain Chris O’Flaherty’s “Naval Minewarfare: Politics to Practicalities“, which I reviewed behind the link above)

When combined, these factors add together to explain the somewhat curious order of battle for the Finnish 4. Mine countermeasures squadron of the Coastal Fleet (Fi. 4. Miinantorjuntalaivue and Rannikkolaivasto respectively). From their homeport at the Pansio naval base just outside of Turku, the unit operate a motley collection of three state-of-the-art minehunters of the Katanpää-class, as well as six small (16 meters LOA and 20 tons) Kiiski-class minesweepers built in the 1980’s and four of the larger (32 meters LOA and 150 tons) Kuha-class minesweepers built back in the 1970’s (but lengthened and modernised around the turn of the millennium). Both are built with GRP-hulls to minimise their magnetic signature (i.e. to try and ensure that they don’t trigger magnetic mines), and can sweep both impulse and contact (moored) mines. The Kiiski-class was built to be optionally manned – the nature of minesweeping meaning that the field has a long and storied history with small optionally manned vessels being controlled from larger sweepers (the German Seehund-class being the best-known internationally) – though my understanding is that feature is no longer used. An interesting detail when it comes to operating the vessels is that a single Kuha (Kuha 26) and five Kiiski (Kiiski 3 through 7) are operated by the regional defence unit Clearance Detachment Osprey (Fi. Raivaajaosasto Sääksi) which is made up of reservists volunteering to do more frequent refresher exercises compared to the regular reserve.

Edit 15/02/2022: Swedish YLE has gotten an update from the Navy, and it turns out the number of operational vessels has shrunk further in the last few years, currently standing at two Kuha and four Kiiski.

Members of Raivaajaosasto Sääksi readying Kiiski 7 during an exercise. Source: Finnish Navy Facebook

However, nothing lasts forever, not even lengthened GRP-hulls, and Naval News this week broke the story that the Finnish Navy has issued a tender for a new minesweeping capability under the designation Minesweeping Capability 2030 (MSC2030, or Raivaamiskyky 2030 / RAKY2030). A new class of vessels will replace both of the older classes of sweepers, which will retire before the end of the decade.

The vessel will sit between the Kiiski and Kuha in size, but being closer to the latter by having a maximum length of approximately 24 meters and sporting a galley as well as accommodation and sanitary spaces. In true Finnish fashion, the mechanical sweeping gear will be transferred from the current vessels on to the new class. The integrated influence sweep systems will however be new, and should cover “all relevant signatures (e.g. acoustic, magnetic, electric)”. This might in other words spell the end of the line for Patria’s domestic sweepers, though the details are obviously unconfirmed as of yet. As was the case with HX, the tender is design to cost, with the expected budget being in the 18 to 20 MEUR range with an additional 15 MEUR reserved for options which might or might not be exercised. The number of hulls, however, is not mentioned in the tender, something that the Finnish Navy confirms isn’t an oversight but rather something they have left open to the bidders (at least for now).

The schedule given include a call for interested yards to report their interest before mid-March, the RFQ will then follow during Q2 this year, and the negotiations to find a prime contractor will kick off during Q3. Contract signing is not yet given, but with an FOC date of 2030 it can be expected to come quite rapidly (my personal guess would be during the first half of 2023). If a supplier can be found.

Because it deserves to be said: nothing like this has been built in the last decade or two.

Few navies are as passionate about mines as the Finnish ones, and those that still run serious mine countermeasure capabilities have largely transited to minehunting instead of sweeping, with most sweepers left in service being rather old. In addition, most new vessels are also on the bigger side compared to the 24 meters of the new class. Perhaps the most recent example of anything resembling the Finnish requirement is found in the Danish Navy which operate the MRD- (or MRD-STOR) and MRF-classes of optionally manned minesweepers. Telling however is that both are old enough (20+ years) that the builder Danyard has since folded.

MSF1 of the MRD-class closest to the camera. The general layout with a large open deck aft and superstructure towards the bow can be expected to feature on the upcoming MSC2030-class. Source: Søværnet Facebook

So who will be competing for the job? The obvious Finnish yard to build a displacing 24 meter craft for any Finnish authorities is Uudenkaupungin Työvene (or Uki Workboat for short), though they are solidly a aluminium/steel-yard. Marine Alutech, supplier of landing craft and fast patrol boats to the Finnish Navy and Border Guards, is also a contender, though the size of the vessel is on the larger side for them and they usually prefer planing hulls. They do however have experience with composite hulls following their order for patrol craft to Oman. My alma mater Kewatec AluBoat has also recently bagged an order from the Finnish Navy, though they are also a pure aluminium yard. They do however sport some interesting designs that would fit the general requirements for the vessel.

A key note, however, is that the Navy isn’t prepared to comment on whether they are looking for a Finnish yard as prime contractor or for building some or all of the vessels locally on license, at least not “at this stage of the process”. This obviously opens up the field even more, and you can expect more or less all the major players in Europe to step up to the plate ready to have a swing at it. This include both smaller players for whom this would be a really nice fit (such as Swedeship Composite and Intermarine), but also the big players for whom this might be a bit on the small side (such as Naval Group, TKMS, Lürssen, or FINCANTIERI) who possibly might outsource the building of the vessels to a smaller yard and do the outfitting  and technology integration themselves. Saab occupies something of a special spot in this discussion, as they have both the GRP know-how (over at Kockums) and a dedicated small craft yard (Docksta). Saab confirms that the project obviously is of interest to them, but said it is too early to tell whether they will be making an offer.

Trying to state which yard (or yards) are the favourites at this stage is tough, and depends somewhat on the equipment level of the vessels. As a very general rule of thumb, the larger yards with recent experience of mine countermeasure vessels such as Naval Group (with the MCM for the Dutch and Belgian navies) and Intermarine (with the large number of Lerici-class derivatives) will benefit from a more tech-heavy approach, while smaller yards with less overhead and leaner structures will benefit from a more bare-bones approach. With that said, Intermarine might be in for a tough race considering the delays with the Katanpää-class probably not having been forgotten quite yet.

Alta-class minesweeper HNoMS Rauma of the Norwegian Navy. Source: BigStuart / Wikimedia Commons

The general layout of the vessel is likely to be rather conventional, mirroring both Kiiski and Kuha in sporting an open deck aft for the handling of the sweeping gear and a superstructure towards the bow. The tender notes that they need to be capable of being optionally manned, which as noted is nothing new or revolutionary in the field of minesweeping. One interesting question that could alter the general layout is if a twin-hull design would prove feasible, as these certainly would provide ample of deckspace and a stable working platform for the rather limited overall length. The Norwegian Navy operate two related classes of mine countermeasure vessels, the Alta-class sweepers and the Oksøy-class minehunters, which sport catamaran hulls of surface effect ship design. SES as a technology is overkill for the Finnish requirement, but shows that unconventional designs are possible within the field of mine countermeasure vessels.

This obviously also ties back to the design to cost and the question of capability versus number of hulls. For a stripped vessel the size of the Kiiski-class, one might get away with paying around a million for the vessel itself, plus whatever the sweeping gear will cost. However, while the 24 meter is a maximum, it certainly gives an indication that the vessel are expected to be 20+ meters in LOA, which together with the navalisation of the design will add to the cost. I also asked the Navy to clarify what exactly the thought behind the options are, which for the time being represent a sum corresponding to 75 to 83 % of the primary contract. Unfortunately they declined to comment on that question. In my mind, there are two prime alternatives: more hulls, or equipment that would go onto the ‘fitted for but not with’-list in case the options aren’t used. This could include defensive weapons (dual-purpose guns or anti-aircraft systems) or anti-submarine weapons, but also upgrades to the mine sweeping equipment, including things such as better sensors, more ROVs, or equipment to assist in case  clearance divers are to be used from the vessels. More hulls is a more straightforward option, as even in the best of cases replacing the current 4+6 vessels on a one-to-one basis seems unattainable with 20 MEUR as that leaves an average of 2 MEUR per vessel, including project management costs and sweep equipment. However, five vessels of a rather basic design might be attainable for 20 MEUR (i.e. 4 MEUR per vessel), dropping the non-recurring costs might mean that another four or five vessels could be squeezed in for an additional 15 MEUR in options. This is just pure speculation at this point, but says something about the scope of the contract. Notable is that the Navy on a direct question stated that Raivaajaosasto Sääksi through the implementation of MSC2030 will have “their materiel renewed and the activities developed”, meaning that the complexity of the vessels will need to be kept at a level where reservists can make a meaningful contribution.

The Danish Navy removing a German mine from the Second World War outside the Estonian coast, a poignant reminder of time frames encountered in mine countermeasure work. Source: Søværnet Facebook

To give a bit of perspective, the three Katanpää-class minehunters came in at 81.7 MEUR a piece, giving a hint at just how stripped an – arguably significantly smaller – minesweeper would have to be to fit the 4 MEUR unit price. However, the aforementioned 23 meter long survey vessels recently ordered by a Swedish company from Kewatec AluBoats came in at 3 MEUR per vessel, so it certainly is doable. At the end of the day, if we could see six or seven new sweepers fit in under the contract while still ensuring that the needed capability is there, I would be rather happy.

Speaking of Swedish companies, an interesting question is obviously whether someone else might be interested in acquiring a few (presumably) dirt cheap minesweepers? I asked the Navy, and got the following line:

The Finnish Navy interact regularly and actively with several countries and take part in international research activities in the field of mine countermeasures, but the MSC2030-project is handled as a national project.

So no export customers for the time being. On the other hand, if the vessels turn out to be good and economical ships, I would not be overtly surprised to see some version of them going on export to some of the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Sweden is a good example of a country that has a solid minehunting capability, but lack in the number of hulls available and currently doesn’t operate a dedicated minesweeper. The Swedish Navy did in fact acquire and briefly operate one ex-Danish MRD-class vessel, HMS Sökaren (MRF01), for tests and trials as part of the deal to lease a surplus submarine to the Danish Navy, but no operational program came out of the so called SAM II-trials. With the Swedish Navy in general being short on hulls and having the same kind of geographical issue as Finland with numerous ports covered by narrow approaches, a small fleet of sweepers could certainly have a role to fill (in particular if Saab makes a successful bid for the program). But for the time being, MSC2030 stays a purely Finnish program, and one that will certainly be interesting to follow, despite it not being as media sexy as Squadron 2020.

Ready when you are

As several observers on Twitter already have noted, while Finland doesn’t directly shout “We’re raising the readiness!” there’s certainly been a flurry of the – as usual rather low-key – messaging to that effect from the Finnish Defence Forces. However, the messages are opaque enough that they do require a bit of attention to detail to figure out what’s really going on.

Like in this case with the Army Academy and Karelia Brigade going out on exercise. Now, note that the Army Academy (Fi. Maasotakoulu) isn’t exactly loaded with conscripts, so these aren’t the much hyped (and with good reason) Valmiusyksiköt (Readiness units, abbreviated VYKS) made up of long-serving conscripts, but rather the Valmiusosastot (Readiness detachments, VOS) staffed by professionals. You’d be forgiven for not realising that tiny detail, but it certainly is interesting that the Karelia Brigade has not sent out it’s VYKS in the field, but rather the VOS, as confirmed by a second tweet.

A benefit of using professionals is obviously that it is possible to train more, including with other authorities where ROEs and command chains can quickly get a bit complicated. The tweets published by the brigade on Twitter does make it sound like the Police decided to crack down on a criminal gang, realised the weapons stash was something too hot for them to handle, and decided to hand over tactical command to the FDF. I will say that I struggle to remember any similar scenario in real life. Sure the FDF has assisted with e.g. providing transports in the form of helicopters or APCs, or a combat engineer or two to defuse some explosives, but I don’t think the scenario description above quite fit that of taking down your local drug dealing network.

Another unit that seemingly out of the blue decided that it was a good idea to train cooperation with other authorities is the Guard’s Jaeger Regiment in Helsinki, the premier MOUT-unit (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) in the Finnish Defence Forces. They even sent out a presser, around 300 soldiers will be running around in different parts of the greater Helsinki-region practicing a number of different mission sets, supported by APCs and including air operations in some scenarios. The regiment states that the operation is part of the normal training plan, but to be honest it is quite difficult to pinpoint which unit would be running this kind of exercise at this time of the year. Charly Salonius-Pasternak speculate that it might be reservists called up, which certainly would fit with the stated training goals, as well as being a clear indication that the current international situation has not come as a surprise to the Finnish Defence Forces, as the normal call-up time for these kinds of units measure in months rather than days or weeks.

The image chosen to illustrate the exercise in Helsinki. It certainly might be stock footage, but notable is that all soldiers have found it prudent to hang their gas masks on the outside of their equipment. Source: FDF

And then we have the flag officers.

Rear Admiral Harju already last week decided to tweet out a nice little image of one of the mineships at sea, noting that the current ice conditions – which have been on the more severe side during the early parts of this winter – doesn’t stop the Navy from doing their mission.

Which include the ability to drop a bunch of mines in some suitable sea-lane should that be called upon, I assume.

Brigadier General Keränen of the Finnish Air Force in turn spotted a quite sizeable detachment of the NH90 helicopters operated by the army aviation, sorting under the Finnish special forces unit in Utti. Apparently he didn’t know why they had decided to visit Tampere-Pirkkala air base, but still decided to take a picture of them and post it on social media.

To be honest, I’m not sure he’s telling us everything he knows.

Coupled with the decision by the Finnish Chief of Defence and Assistant Chief of Staff – Operations (J3) last week to give rather in-depth interviews to the public broadcaster YLE and the Finnish paper of record Helsingin Sanomat respectively, it seems evident that while the Finnish Defence Forces is sticking to the decision not to publish their state of readiness directly, they have opted to take a more open line compared to what has been the case in some other situations. Crucially, while the general public might not pick up on the details, there is little doubt that the potential adversary will be able to pick up on everything they need to know.

A key takeaway, however, is once again how differently the Swedish and Finnish Defence Forces communicate. At a time when both forces integrate deeper and deeper with each other with the aim of being able to perform joint operations in peace or war, this sticks out and is evidently an area that also will need to be the focus of exercises at the bilateral level. Luckily, as these kinds of strategic decisions are taken rather high up in the chain of command, they should be quite cheap to practice as the number of people and equipment involved is rather small.

Eight Years and Counting

So today the blog turned eight. Time flies when you have fun – or as is the case for this particular blog, when you get to watch the most tense security environment Europe has seen for a generation or two from a front row seat.

The year ended with the F-35A being chosen as Finland’s next fighter. Here a few USAF F-35As undergo hot pit refuelling in Alaska. Source. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong

I would like to take time to thank all of you readers! It certainly wouldn’t be the same without you. As to who exactly “you” are, the majority of you last year came from Sweden, with Finland being a rather close second, followed by USA, France, the UK, Germany, Norway, Canada, and Australia quite a bit further down the list. A special shout-out to my single readers in Madagascar, Sint Maarten, Congo-Brazzaville, Turkmenistan, Timor-Leste, Gabon, the Falklands, Guyana, Mayotte, Kiribati, Tajikistan, St Lucia, and Bhutan (no guessing how many are correct and how many are creative VPN-users).

The number of page views rose nicely (38%) compared to 2020, with everything HX obviously being a big fan favourite. The most read post was still not HX-related, but my take on AUKUS. This was followed by a bunch of HX-related material, before it was time for two posts on another acquisition program: the new sniper rifles for Finland (and probably Sweden). My interview with brigadier general Frisell and colonel Norgern of the Swedish Defence Material Administration was without doubt the post that featured the most unique details of any blog post last year – HX is studied in such a detail by more or less the whole Finnish media landscape that few details can be said to be really breaking.

A big shift visible last year was that the number of comments jumped from a rather steady baseline that in fact hasn’t changed much despite the growth in readership over the year. 304 in total in 2020, to a whooping 1,174 in 2021. While I welcome the discussion and have received quite a few hints and correction through the comments over the years, the amount at this stage is slowly starting to reach the point where more moderation might be required than I have time for. For the time being the comments stay open, though I am going to have to make some kind of decision on the future of the comments at some point during the not-too-distant future.

I would like to end with a big Thank You to the large number of people who in one way or the other have helped me during the past year with answering questions, giving hints, and generally being nice people! You are too many to mention all, but I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the people involved in different aspects of HX – including both Finnish authorities, manufacturers, and other.

That was all for this anniversary post. Normal posts will continue soon, and unfortunately I have a feeling that the situation in Europe will provide plenty of topics during the upcoming year.

Arms Control is Back – or is it?

According to US leaks the Biden administration is open for real discussion about arms control, provided that that is indeed the intent of the Putin regime. These could include confidence building measures surrounding military exercises, the number of US and Russian troops stationed in and opposite Poland and the Baltic States, as well as reductions in long-range weapon systems.

Make no mistake, this would without doubt be a most welcome development.

One of the most under-reported aspects of this new Cold War is the almost complete breakdown of what in fact was a rather extensive number of arms control and arms reduction treaties covering both conventional weapons and forces as well as weapons of mass destruction. This year will see the fifty year anniversary of SALT I, and in the time since there has been (or rather, had been) significant advances in the field. A rejuvenated arms control regime would certainly be a fitting way of celebration, because at the end of the day, while no treaty is perfect, the world in general is safer, there’s less room for misunderstandings, and you have a better situational picture and understanding of your opponent and their options if there is a solid framework of treaties in place. Even a simple “let’s get back to the CFE, INF, and Open Skies“-would be most welcome.

Any reduction in troops in Europe is often seen as favouring Russia as troops moved beyond Ural are easier to ferry back to the border than troops pulled back to the states. That is indeed the case, but arms control is one of the fields were allowing the lack of the perfect to stand in the way of the good might prove counterproductive. An imperfect agreement might still be better than none at all. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

The current diplomatic situation as a whole is in many ways not beneficial to the free world, as most of the recent talks between Russia and the US has taken place following threatening Russian behaviour. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that that reward the Kremlin doing bad things to get attention. Everyone knows that the US would like to pivot to China, which obviously also tells Moscow that Washington sees the current superpower hierarchy as going 1) themselves, 2) Beijing, and 3) Moscow (maybe, or then they’re just a regional power with nukes in an important region). That is obviously not how the Kremlin would prefer things, and if the only way to get to the US to treat them as equals is to march a hundred-thousand troops up and down the Ukrainian border, well, so be it. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be worth settling in for one of two options: either talks should happen without the need for serious threats to kick them off, or alternatively talks shouldn’t happen at all, regardless of the Russian behaviour. The second option obviously is a somewhat dangerous one, while the first easily could lead to appeasement.

It is important to remember that arms reduction treaties are not a reward for good behaviour and being a decent chap. Instead, the reason for talks is exactly that the other side is made up of jerks that are doing stupid stuff. When the JCPOA-treaty about Iran’s nuclear weapons was in the headlines, a friend of mine who is a staunch supporter of democracy was surprised to learn that I supported the deal with that decidedly undemocratic and untrustworthy country. “Would I have supported a deal with Hitler?” my friend asked. “Yes,” was my answer. “Because one of the few things worse than fighting the Second World War would have been fighting the Second World War against a Nazi-Germany armed with nuclear weapons.”

That analogy is a bad mix of Goodwin’s law and counterfactual history, but it gets the point through.

Having established why I believe that arms control talks in principle would benefit the West by giving us a clearer picture on what the Russians are doing and removing or transferring some of the most aggressive capabilities further from the border to ensure a longer build-up before any Russian attack, I will unfortunately have to crash my own party by stating that I don’t think there is any hope for real and productive talks any time soon. This basically rests on the worldview found in the Kremlin.

In short, the basic premise for any arms control treaties is that they are based on reciprocity, i.e. that the sides agree to take similar steps and allow each other to have the same rights. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Russia sees the security concerns of Estonia as equally valid as their own ones, and I don’t believe Russia sees NATO as a valid partner. It has been rather clear from the outset that eyes are fixed on the price of a bilateral Russia-US agreements. There are a few possible reasons behind this, one of which is that Russia believe it is easier to get concessions from the US compared to the states neighbouring Russia, or that trying to split NATO would make eventual decoupling of the US and its allies easier. However, a possibility that in my view certainly is worth serious thought is that Russia does not understand that NATO is indeed for real an organisation made up off independent states and based on consensus decision making. The US is indeed primus inter pares when it comes to anything happening within it, but this is not the same as the role played by the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact where the leading nation extended Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the form of invading armies into countries that felt they could make decisions independently (something that happened not just once, but twice, and very nearly a third time). If that is the frame of reference you have when thinking about alliances, involving the rest of the countries in any discussions are just a waste of time, and it also very effectively reduces the easternmost countries from independent states with independent security concerns into just buffer states (this certainly might explain why countries are more interested in joining the other country’s alliance instead of the one you are promoting, but reaching that insight require a certain amount of introspection and self-critical reasoning that might be anathema to the whole thing).

A word of caution here as well: if the US authorities doesn’t remember these basic facts as well, there is a very real risk of an agreement indeed leading to some level of decoupling with the easternmost NATO-countries feeling left out. Besides other obvious issues, the benefits the US gets from its network of allies and partners after all is based on the US ability to get independent states to at times compromise their own interests in the understanding that in the long-run having US support is more beneficial. If their allies start believing that they are about to be sold out in a Munich 2.0-style agreement, the US will loose influence and might indeed instead of arms reduction along both sides of the Russian border see an uptick, potentially even a small-scale arms race as countries start to invest more heavily in systems they feel hold deterrent value – such as the long-range missile systems which both the US and Russia apparently agree constitute an issue (at least the enemy once constitute an issue, the own one are obviously just peaceful deterrents).

The F-16 and the free-fall B61 nuclear bomb – not a system even close in capability to a nuclear-tipped Iskander-M (or the RS-26 Rubezh), not even with the upcoming upgrade to F-35A and B61 Mod 12. Source: USAF via Wikimedia Commons

A short tangent: some have compared NATO’s enhanced forward presence to the Cuba Crisis and asked why the US strong response there was warranted if the Russian one here isn’t. There is an obvious issues here, namely that the country which has aggressively placed nuclear-armed long-range systems close to the heartland of other countries is Russia and not NATO – the only nuclear weapons found in Europe outside of Russia is the handful of UK and French SLBMs on their submarines, a limited number of French air-launched cruise missiles stationed in France and aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as a modest number of traditional free-fall bombs found on a handful of air force bases in the old NATO countries. Russia on the other hand has aggressively developed and deployed new weapons and delivery systems, the most notable of which is the Iskander-M deployment to Kaliningrad. Of course, if the European countries doesn’t have valid security concerns and should just be happy that they aren’t occupied and should forget about being able to freely choose their partners and allies, then the argument becomes more understandable, but I rarely see those using the Cuba-card to justify Russian demands also supporting the US blockade on Cuba or the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Where does that leave us? Well, in the best of worlds, mutually constructive talks can be had and a number of steps decided upon between NATO as a whole and Russia. These might include e.g. the withdrawal of Iskander-units from Kaliningrad and the regions close to the Russian western border in exchange for NATO commitments to not station the upcoming post-INF systems within range of Russian territories, or the movement of the 76th Guards from Pskov to a more eastern location in exchange for set limits on US troops in eastern Poland, or simply the lower hanging fruit of pre-announcing exercises and attaching observers to said exercises.

Unfortunately, as mentioned I expect the Kremlin not to appreciate the fact that the EFP and other steps taken by NATO countries in the east is largely based on the very real concerns these countries have, in no small measure based on their experiences from decades of Soviet occupation and dominance. As such, reciprocity will most likely be hard to achieve. In that environment, any arms control treaty is most likely a bad idea, and won’t achieve the desired effect. Instead, there is a very real risk that any agreement would just lead to splits within the alliance.

A very specific word of warning for Finland and Sweden: in the unlikely scenario of a major transatlantic security agreement that would include restrictions to e.g. long-range weapon systems near the Russian border based on the understanding that Poland doesn’t need JASSM because the corresponding capabilities can be supplied by other NATO-members, Finland and Sweden would be left vulnerable being both unable to buy high-end capabilities from NATO-members as well as not having the protection offered by being part of the alliance. The obvious solution is to join the alliance to ensure a seat at the table, and not just the courteous phone calls afterwards informing about what the decision is.

…and while the US just selling out the countries of eastern and central Europe – either under this administration or the next one – might be an unlikely option, it is also an extremely high-impact one, and since the options for the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea then would range from bad to expensive, it is high time to start thinking about what our plan is in that case.

Enter Seahawk – Exit Whitefox?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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