The Long and the Short of Finnish Guns

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

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

The Heavy-hitters

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 However, dwindling and aging ammunition stocks have meant that all howitzers are withdrawn, with two battalions of 152 mm 2A36 guns and six battalions of 130 mm M-46 being left in service (note that the figures of wartime strengths should be taken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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D-30

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

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

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

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

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

The Headache

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

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

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

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‘The Best Artillery in Europe’

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

K9 Thunder

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

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

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

Lost & Found

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

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

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

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

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

The best artillery in Europe

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

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

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

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

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

I have now idea what that was about.

Putin’s Undeclared War – A look at Bellingcat’s Artillery Investigation

It is by now no secret that regular Russian units played a major role in turning the tide of the Ukrainian summer offensive of 2014. This has been reported by international actors as well as the Ukrainian government, and Russian support has included both older as well as newer systems (such as the Pantsir and T-72B3), and whole units. One aspect which has received relatively little coverage is the considerable artillery support provided by the Russian Army to the Russian/Separatist forces. The latest Bellingcat report remedies this.

The report, titled ‘Putin’s Undeclared War – Summer 2014 Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine’ (ENGLISH/RUSSIAN), uses satellite imagery from the border area to locate possible firing positions that can be tied to Russian Army units, as well as artillery craters from a firing direction pointing towards Russia within close proximity to the border. These have then been classified according to a given set of criteria, to give a high probability that any firing position or crater field really could be tied to Russian artillery.

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Perhaps the single most damning picture in the report: Presenting all the cases where it has been possible to directly link artillery targets to Russian firing positions. Source: Bellingcat

The method employed is described in detail in the report, with helpful examples and illustrations to show its implementation. The numbers are staggering. Russian artillery units fired on Ukrainian targets on at least 149 separate occasions during the summer of 2014, with another 130 positions being identified as ‘likely’. On the receiving side, 408 crater fields coming from the direction of the border have been identified within range of Russian artillery, and of these 127 are within 3 km of the border itself, a range close enough to more or less rule out that the firing system has been stationed on Ukrainian territory. The Russian artillery have participated in the war by firing thousands of shells, a number so great that even in case of some of the incidents would have been from Ukrainian or separatist guns, there’s no denying the underlying conclusion: Russia provided a significant amount of indirect fire in support of their campaign in the Donbas.

There are at least three distinct phases of the campaign, with the first being the early shellings. Here, Russian units crossed the border, and once just inside Ukrainian territory they took up a firing position, and once again withdrew back to Russian territory once the firing was over (leaving easily identified tracks and thread marks). This poorly disguised attempt at getting some kind of deniability was then phased out as the campaign went on, the downing of MH17 being something of a watershed moment, and it became more and more common for the units to fire from Russian territory. The targets in most cases were the Ukrainian military camps set up during the Ukrainian offensive. A third phase of the artillery campaign started with the Russian ground offensive that reversed the Ukrainian gains. Here it is harder to determine which side has performed the attacks, as the Russian artillery pieces moved deep inside Ukrainian territory on the heels of the advancing Russian units. The attacks were usually performed by a limited number of guns, ranging from three to eight artillery pieces (though some sites have been targeted from multiple firing positions), with everything from mortars to self-propelled as well as towed howitzers and MLRS having been used. In some cases these included newer pieces of equipment, such as the BM-30 Smerch heavy rocket-launcher and the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, both systems which indicate Russian involvement.

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The Russian BM-30 Smerch is identifiable on satellite pictures due its size compared to earlier systems. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Digr

The report as a whole gives a thorough picture, and is probably the first up until now to disclose the full extent of the Russian use of cross-border artillery strikes in the conflict. Noteworthy is the fact that 35 of the targeted sites sported more than a 100 impact craters.

Does the artillery strikes in themselves constitute an act of war? The report claim so, but as my knowledge of international law is limited, I asked Oscar Jonsson, a visiting researcher at Berkeley and  PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, for a second opinion. His answer, to my surprise, was that as ‘War’ isn’t really properly defined. The UN Charter e.g. does not use the word (except in the preamble), but instead forbids the ‘use of force’ (except when defending from an armed attack). Cross-border raids and artillery strikes doesn’t necessarily amount to war unless they reach a certain (non-specified) intensity, with e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh having seen cross-border shootings which usually aren’t described as war. As such the question of what exactly constitutes a war largely rests on the individual states and the security council to pronounce.

However, as Jonsson also pointed out in an earlier post, the question is largely semantic, as the fact that Ukraine has international law on their side in Putin’s secret war doesn’t really help, unless they got the power to implement it (i.e. fight back). Even though the report indicates a degree of fighting that would classify as an armed attack, Ukraine still defines the conflict as an anti-terrorist operation from their lack of power.

All in all, the report is well worth a read, and gives yet another piece of the puzzle regarding Russia’s direct involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

K9 Thunder – Release the Hounds

727.

That is, to the best of my OSINT-knowledge, the number of artillery pieces currently active in the Finnish army.

Ever since World War II, artillery has played a key role in the Finnish take on warfare. The reasons are many, but include having fought the Winter War with preciously little artillery support, the brilliant General of the Artillery (and Mannerheim Knight) Nenonen and his trajectory calculations making what artillery Finland had very effective, having been on the receiving end of the Red Army’s massed artillery strikes in 1944, and a lack of ground attack aircraft for battlefield interdiction. Artillery has also been seen as extremely cost-effective, and has a very long lifespan (thereby reducing life-cycle cost). A measure of the importance placed on artillery during the post-war years was the fact that Finland not only bought the widely-spread 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm self-propelled howitzer, of which around 72 still serve under the 122 PSH 1974 moniker, but was also one of the few export customers for the more powerful 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm long-range self-propelled gun. All 18 pieces of this impressive (but poorly protected) vehicle have now been retired.

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The venerable 2S1 ‘Gvozdika’, mainstay of the current Finnish SPG-fleet. Source: Teemu Maki/Wikimedia Commons

Apart from these two self-propelled vehicles the Finnish artillery relies on mass amounts of traditional towed pieces. The most important artillery piece based purely on numbers is the old (or rather, antiquated) 122 mm D-30 2A18 (122 H-63) Soviet light howitzer, of which just under 500 still remain in service, a number of ex-Finnish howitzers having been shipped to Estonia where they provide an important part of the 1. Jalaväebrigaad’s indirect fire support. For a heavier punch, the 152 mm 2A36 (152 K 89) heavy gun and the legendary 130 mm M-46 (130 K 54) of Khe Sanh fame are available. The final pieces are the Tampella-designed (now Patria) 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, the later being the first towed piece with a 52-calibre barrel length to enter service in Europe.

The target area during an artillery bombardment by 130 mm M-46’s, footage from Finnish Army Vaikuttamisharjoitus 2013 (literally “Impact Exercise 2013″) Edit: Correct designation is ‘Joint Fires Exercise 2013′. 

While getting hit by a 40 kg howitzer shell still hurts as much as it did in 1946, development on the battlefield has not stopped, and a quick look at the Finnish artillery park shows that it is headed for massavanheneminen, a Finnish word which means “many things reaching obsolescence at the same time”. The gap left by the old 122 mm D-30 is largely being covered by advances in heavy mortar technology, and the indigenous 155 mm guns still have useful years left (despite a troubled beginning), but the 2S1 as well as towed 130 and 152 mm guns needs to be replaced.

This isn’t something new, and the Finnish Army held trials with a number of modern SPG’s already back in the early years of the millennium, with the German PzH 2000 reportedly coming out victorious. Budgetary constraints however pushed the acquisition back ‘past 2006’, and the process was restarted with the issuing of a request for information last year. My personal bet was that the PzH 2000 would have come out on top (unless the Army would have thrown a curveball and decided to go for wheels in the name of better operational mobility) The PzH 2000 have bagged an impressive amount of export orders in addition to having proved its worth in Afghanistan.

However, early July the Ministry of Defence released a surprise statement saying they were in negotiations with the Republic of (South) Korea over the acquisition of used K9 Thunder SPG’s. The exact details are still unconfirmed as the negotiations are ongoing, but according to an interview in Finnish tabloid Iltalethi ‘tens’ of guns will be bought for ‘around 100 million [euro] or slightly more’. Notable is also the fact that the original press release says that the deal ‘partially covers artillery becoming obsolete in the 2020-2030 time span’, indicating that further buys, either of more K9’s, another SPG, or some other weapons system, are likely.

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A Korean K9 Thunder being resupplied by a K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

The K9 Thunder might not be as widely seen in Europe as the PzH 2000, but it isn’t a complete stranger to our part of the world either. Turkey has placed a major order on a slightly modified version under the local name T-155 Fırtına, and the chassis was used to salvage the troubled Polish AHS Krab SPG-programme. Perhaps more importantly, the K9 Thunder has been evaluated for the Norwegian new artillery programme, with Finnish (and Danish) observers having attended the trials in Norway.

K9 Thunder during trials in a very snowy Norway earlier this year. Source: Mogens Rasmus Mogensen

The K9 Thunder is pretty much everything you would expect from a modern SPG. The gun is of 52 calibre length, and sports an automatic loader. This allows MRSI (multiple rounds, simultaneous impact), in other words a single artillery piece can fire off a salvo of shells at different angles and with different charges (giving them different speeds), making them all hit the same spot at the same time. This is a key component in allowing the K9 to make shoot and scoot surprise attacks. A battery of vehicles drives into firing position, fires off a number of shells which impact on the unprepared enemy position all at the same time, and then drive away before counter-battery fire hits their position. Interestingly, the K9 Thunder beat the Russian 2S19 Msta-S in an Indian tender, with the K9 now being on track to enter local license production.

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A K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle. The K10 is based on the same vehicle as the K9. Source: Defense Citizens Network/Wikimedia Commons

To maintain such a high rate of fire, the vehicle is supported by a dedicated loading vehicle, the K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle, which connects a munitions transporter to a loading port on the K9, and then feeds ammunition into the SPG at up to 12 shells per minute, until all 104 shells have been transferred. Presumably a number of K10’s would also be bought to support our K9’s.

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A dramatic picture of a K9 Thunder preparing for the counter strike during the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

The K9 Thunder has seen combat in the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong, in which a total of 80 shells were fired at North Korean installations in retaliation of a North Korean artillery bombardment. The bombardment was not a particularly glamorous combat debut, as of six Thunders returning from an exercise in the area, two were damaged by the initial shells and unable to return fire, with a third getting a dud shell stuck in the breech, leaving the other three to conduct the retaliatory bombardment. As the vehicles had been on a live-firing exercise, their stocks of shells were also running low, and as no K10 was available, new 155 mm shells had to be carried by hand through the North Korean bombardment to the K9’s, something which severely limited the rate of fire. In addition, the North Korean artillery was placed in emplacements dug into the cliffs, and as such extremely well protected.

…and when discussing the nickname thirty years from now, remember where you heard it first 😉

Korean Sabre Rattling

It has probably escaped no-one that things are heating up along the 38th parallel in Korea. All began when earlier this month (04.08.2015) two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines placed by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (which certainly doesn’t warrant any of those titles, except ‘Korea’). Last Thursday (20.08) the DPRK fired artillery over the demilitarised zone, DMZ for short, aiming on propaganda loudspeakers set up by the Republic of (South) Korea, which promptly answered with a few salvos of 155 mm long range artillery. This evening (24.08) there seems to have been some sort of agreement reached, but the situation remains tense. This warrants a few observations.

North Korea is quite possibly the most militarised country on the planet. A large part of its equipment, including vehicles and weapons, are old bordering on antique. This includes fighter jets developed in the 50’s and apparently tanks that saw service in WWII (if rumours about T-34’s and Su-100’s still being active are correct). Still, while the main force would rely on numbers more than quality in any renewal of fighting, there are a couple of branches that may make things nasty for the South.

170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. This is an ex-Irani gun captured first by Iraq in the 80’s and later by US forces. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps

The first is the North Korean artillery. The number of artillery pieces, calibres ranging from 3’’/76.2 mm up to 170 mm, are unknown, but is measured in thousands, possibly up to 10,000. Some of these are stationed in hardened shelters dug into the mountains along the DMZ, reportedly with pre-determined targets on the Southern side of the border, including Seoul in the case of the mighty (but slow-firing) 170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. Added to these are a few thousand (4-5,000?) multiple rocket launchers, as well as thousands of light, medium, and heavy mortars. The lethality of these are somewhat overrated, with graphic descriptions of Seoul being levelled by a wall of fire during the first hour of a possible conflict. In practice, only the heaviest systems, 200 mm rocket launchers and the 170 mm guns, have the range to reach Seoul, and due to their size they have a very long reload time. Also, the use of fixed positions makes them easy targets for the sizeable air force and artillery units operated by South Korea and the US forces on the peninsula, the main mission of the latter being counter-battery fire. However, the sheer number and protection of these gun emplacements mean that their destruction will take time, and while a Dresden-style complete destruction of Seoul is out of the question, they will still cause considerable damage during their short life spans.

Another much reported arm of the DPRK forces is the submarine fleet, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is mainly made up of old Chinese copies of the obsolete Soviet Project 633 ‘Romeo’-class diesel-electric submarines, around 20 of which are currently in service. These are then backed up by a plethora of smaller vessels of the Sang-O/Sang-O II, Yugo, and Yono-classes, which are either used for insertion of Special Forces or for “traditional” ship-hunting missions. The latter was demonstrated when a Yono-class submarine fired a torpedo that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010, becoming only the third submarine to have sunk a surface vessel since the Second World War. The US Naval Institute claims that as many as 90 of these smaller vessels might be in service, but also notes that serviceability is poor and many vessels are in reserve. Yesterday (24.08.2015) South Korean sources reported that 50 submarines of unspecified classes have gone to sea in an unprecedented move, and that these make up 70% of the entire submarine force (i.e. the ROK places the number of active submarines at 71 compared to USNI’s ~110). In response, South Korea has stepped up its air patrols to try and locate the submarines.

Sang-O class submarine which ran aground while attempting to insert commands into South Korea in 1996. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Forces Korea

While the submarine force is severely outdated, the Romeo is largely based on a hull-design pioneered by the Germans during WWII in the form of their Type XXI coupled with early-Cold War Soviet technology, they should not be underestimated. Diesel-electric submarines are extremely quiet, and as such hard to detect. If the submarines are able to take up positions before a conflict erupts, as their sheer number means that it is impossible for South Koreas 16 anti-submarine aircraft to keep track of them all. Even many of the lighter submarines feature heavy 533 mm torpedo tubes, being able to load a number of different Chinese and indigenous torpedoes, including wake-homing and passive/active seekers, making them extremely deadly if they can lie silently in ambush and wait for a target to pass by, as was evident in the case of the sinking of the Cheonan.

All in all however, the South Korean armed forces should be able to make up for their smaller size by vastly more modern equipment and training. There are uncertainties, such as the morale of the conscripts serving long times in remote (and unpopular) locations, and the whole system of conscription has been questioned. Still, in a fight for the survival of the country, one would assume that morale would not be an issue.

The big problem with Korea is that it is next door to China. And that there are a considerable number of US troops in the country. As was evident in 1950, while China might not be overjoyed by the seemingly dicey behaviour of their neighbours in Pyongyang, they vastly prefer it to having an US ally on the border. In fact, the response during the Korean War was so strong, it was one of the very few instances since the Second World War in which an US force have been decisively beaten on the battlefield. Still today, it is hard to imagine Beijing letting Pyongyang fall, no matter their opinions of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Obviously, there is also the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. They don’t have many, but even a single warhead aimed at Seoul, or any other target on the peninsula for that matter, would in a stroke transform the conflict. Some have stated that the treat of the US nuclear arsenal and a retaliatory attack by Washington makes this option unlikely, but I am less than certain. To begin with, Obama has so far proved to be a leader that likes to err on the side of caution in matters of foreign policy. Also, whether there would be a popular opinion in the US supporting even a defensive nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is highly dubious, especially with the possibility of the Chinese being dragged into it with their nuclear arsenal.

It might however be that Washington has no choice. With the amount of US troops in the area, there is a very real risk that they will be dragged into the fighting, and suffer casualties, before Obama even has time to gather his aides to discuss the war.

There are also a couple of interesting developments in the general area, none of which are by themselves really worrying, but they deserve to be taken into consideration:

  • China has apparently moved PTZ-89 tank destroyers to the border. These are specialised vehicle, featuring light armour but powerful guns, meant to take out massed tank units,
  • China and Russia are conducting a joint marine/naval exercise in the area, the highlight of which will be a joint amphibious and air landing,
  • The US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, normally features the sole US aircraft carrier to be permanently forward based, i.e. having a non-US homeport. Currently, we are in the short window of time where no such carrier is in place, as the USS Georg Washington (CVN-73) which has been homeported in Yokosuka since 2008, has left Japan for San Diego. She arrived in the US two weeks ago (10.08), and her replacement, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has yet to leave for Japan. In other words, the US forces that rapidly could take part in a conflict in Korea is missing the equivalent of a decently sized (larger than Finland’s) air force,
  • An explosion occurred late yesterday at the US Army base close to Yokosuka, Camp Zama. While the reason behind this latest incident is unclear, a suspected attack on the base by Japanese extreme-leftist was investigated earlier this year. This incident also places further strain on the relations between local Japanese authorities and the US forces in Japan,
  • This was followed by a huge fire at a nearby steel plant, which closed Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.