Guest Post: An Unreasonable Brigade Artillery

A few weeks ago a blog post discussing Swedish artillery at the brigade level caught my eye. As I noted last year,Finland is looking at the retirement of a significant portion of our brigade level assets in the near future, and which system should replace these is far from obvious. The post by Öhman was also of the kind of outside the box thinking I like to bring forward, so I contacted him and asked for permission to run an English translation. The translation is my own, and all faults when it comes to jargon are my own work as well.

The author Peter Öhman is a Swedish officer with a solid knowledge of anything armour or artillery who currently works at the Swedish Defence Material Administration. You will find him on Twitter and on his blog.

In a future growing Army there are many who feel that Haubits 08 ‘Archer’ would be optimally used as a divisional asset. It is a sensible idea which has been discussed in many places, but which won’t be developed further here.

With Haubits 08 as a divisional asset there would appear a void on the brigade level, as we don’t have any towed Haubits 77 mothballed. What should then be the remedy?

If one looks at the different requirements for a brigade-level artillery system they could look something like this:

  • Instantaneous firepower that allows a unit of size X to fire a fire mission in under 10 seconds,
  • Accuracy that allows the fire mission to hit the target location,
  • The ability to maintain sustained fire for X amount of time,
  • Protection which allows the artillery unit to operate together with the rest of the brigade,
  • Mobility which allows the artillery unit to move with the brigade’s battle,
  • High availability.

In practice this means that the artillery piece must have a certain rate of fire, especially initially. The ability to sustain fire over time is created by bringing lots of ammunition, having the ability to reload rapidly, having an efficient logistics chain, and sporting a high resistance to the barrel heating.

Protection means protection against shrapnel, but also signature reduction and the ability to rapidly move to a new position after firing. When discussing mobility it is easy to get dragged into a discussion about tracks or wheels, which is a balance between the ability to quickly transfer between battalions and cross-country mobility to reach suitable firing positions in the terrain. Very few today consider using towed pieces, due to the longer time to get them into position.

High availability may be technical reliability, but it may also be based on mobility, and perhaps most of all range.

As the requirements are broken down into details, sooner or later the question about what calibre should be used will become the topic of the day.

Of what calibre should a future system be?

155 mm is of course the NATO-standard and a calibre which has been working well since at least the Second World War. We can’t abandon a NATO-standard by ourselves, and we have old ammunition stocks which we need to be able to use. That’s how easy the analysis can be. Now is when I will be unreasonable and question this train of thought. Is 155 mm really an obvious choice for supporting the fighting formations of a brigade? The following text should be treated as something of a “military satire”.

If we look at the specifications for a number of common artillery systems in 152 and 155 mm we get the following table:

SystemWeight (t)Range (km)Am. carriedShots/minLengthCrew
2S194224.7506-8L/475
K-94730526-8L/525
M109A73524394L/394
PzH 200056306010L/525
Haub 0833.530218-9L/522-4

Ranges given are for standard rounds, i.e. not including base bleed or similar technologies.

When looking at even large calibers such as 203 mm the big benefit of 155 mm is that it is easier to handle both for humans and machines. A 155 mm shell weighs around 45 kg, compared to at least twice as much for a 203 mm one. The recoil forces are also about twice as big, leading to an unreasonably large gun. The range will also be short unless one want a barrel that is 2.5 m longer than the already long 155 mm L/52 barrels. Big and heavy ammunition also leads to a low rate of fire. The US M110 howitzer with an L/25 barrel has a range of 17 km with standard ammunition. Weighing 28 tons it only carry two rounds. This means a continuous supply of ammunition is required, and even in the best case scenario the rate of fire is around 1 shot/min.

Ukrainian 2S7 Pion in 2017. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

The Russian 2S7 is bigger and weighs a staggering 46.5 ton, have a L/56.2 barrel which gives a V0 of 960 m/s and gives the 110 kg shell an impressive 37.5 km range. However, it only carries 8 rounds and can at best handle a rate of fire of 2.5 shots/min. 2S7 is 13 meters long and has a crew of seven.

These kinds of calibres are unreasonable for highly-mobile artillery that supports the combat units of a brigade, and are better suited to hammering fortifications.

A Finnish 2S1 Gvozdika / 122 PsH 74 during exercise Pohjoinen 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

Eastern countries also employ 122 mm. The most common vehicle is the 2S1 (122 PsH 74 in Finnish service) which fire a 21.7 kg shell out to 15.3 km from a L/36 barrel, it weighs 16 ton, has a crew of four, and carries 40 rounds.

2S34 Khosta on parade. Note the new weapon. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

A modernised version of the 2S1 is known as the 2S34 Khosta which sports a 120 mm gun/mortar with a range of 14 km. The same gun is found in the 2S31 Vena which carries 70 rounds and weighs 19.5 tons.

Swedish 12/80 coastal artillery gun. Source: Marinmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

In Sweden we had the 12/80, a 120 mm version of Haubits 77. With a L/55 barrel it had the same range with load 2 that the L/38 Haubits 77 had as its maximum range.

Calibre 105 mm is something that usually has been found on the battalion level. An example of a modern system is Hawkeye which is based on the HMMWV. The weight is just 4.4 ton. With a L/27 barrel is has a range of 11.5 km with a 15 kg shell. According to one source 8 rounds are carried.

105/50 coastal defence gun of the Arholma Battery. Source: Patrik Nylin via Wikimedia Commons

There are also long-ranged 105 mm systems. The Swedish turreted automatic 105/50 with L/54 barrel had a range of 20 km. It is especially interesting that a number of other countries still cling to and develop 120 mm-class guns. I will therefore make a comparison between 120 and 155 mm weapons when it comes to a few specifications I regard as critical for brigade artillery.

Range, less is more!

Upon a quick comparison 155 mm seems to have the edge when it comes to range. 15.3 km from a L/36 barrel compared to 24 km from an L/39 when comparing 2S1 and M109. However, 2S1 uses a rather modest 3.8 kg powder charge to reach a V0 of 680 m/s and 15.3 km. At the other end of the spectrum, Swedish 120 mm Tornautomatpjäs 9101 (12/70) uses a L/62 barrel to reach 27 km with a V0 of 880 m/s. The earlier mentioned 120 mm 9501 (12/80 Karin) can reach 21.1 km with charge no 2 with a V0 of 800 m/s. 155 mm guns with a 800 m/s V0 can reach around 22 km, meaning that the difference is rather small. 120 mm as a calibre has good ballistic properties. With a barrel length of around L/50 a 120 mm gun will use 5-6 kg and a 155 mm one 12-15 kg of powder to reach a V0 of 800 m/s. A 120 mm L/62 is also 60 cm shorter than a 155 mm L/52. In other words a rather small potential edge in range for the 155 mm is balanced against having a long barrel that’s still easily handled for the 120 mm.

Another aspect of the range question plays a major role in the discussion, and this is where less is more. The fact is that when the range approaches or pushes beyond 20 km, the shells will follow a trajectory that is so high, and spend such a long time airborne that the weather makes accuracy unacceptably poor. The reason is partly because it becomes hard to reach the desired effect without ranging shots and/or the need for additional rounds in target, and partly because the increased dispersion increases the danger for the friendly units one tries to support. Base bleed and rocket assisted projectiles (RAP) which are used to increase the ranges also further diminish accuracy and increase cost. To counter this increase in dispersion once the range is edging towards 40 km technical aids such as precision-guided rounds and course correcting fuzes are used. These are very expensive, and ill-suited to the massed fires required to support ground combat. Firing at ranges between 30 and 40 km also has other consequences. At least double the gas pressure and V0 close to 1,000 m/s leads to increased strain on the equipment and faster wear. My opinion is that if the laws of physics makes it a bad, or at the very least an expensive, idea to use supporting fires at ranges above 20 km, then we shouldn’t invest too much money and effort into such a capability for systems acquired to support ground combat. To reach 20+ km 120 mm is plenty enough.

Effect

Presume a fire mission of 24 155 mm rounds would be replaced by a single round with the same weight of just over 1,000 kg in the middle of the target area. It is obvious that the effect would be poor in the majority of the target area and unnecessary good close to the giant round. Ordinarily one strives to spread the effect evenly over the whole target area. Case in point being the use of submunitions. Before the Convention on Cluster Munitions there was even a project on introducing 120 mm mortar rounds with submunitions, and in Russia who doesn’t give a damn about the ban on submunitions their use is increasing. Against fortified targets heavier rounds do however maintain the edge.

The 122 mm D-30 howitzer remains the mainstay of Finnish battalion indirect fire assets. Source: Maavoimat FB

In a comparison between a big bang and thousands of submunitions one can compare the weights of 24 rounds of 155 mm, 45 rounds of 120 mm, and 72 rounds of 105 mm. The superior effect would in this case come from 72 rounds of 105 mm. A good indication is that a Swedish fire mission of 24 120 mm mortar rounds is treated as the equal to 18 155 mm rounds. The weight of a mortar round is in fact more closely equal to that of a 105 mm howitzer round. The effect of a single 120 mm howitzer round matches very closely that of a 155 mm one. The issue is that one reaches further with a heavy round, but preferably would split it up in many smaller units when reaching the target area to get superior effect. As long as we uphold a ban on submunitions the importance of choosing a calibre that gives good effect in the target increases. Scientific advances also make it possible to fit a seeker in smaller rounds than before, though it would be difficult to get as good effect e.g. out of a 120 mm BONUS-round as out of a 155 mm one.

Logistics

To compare the logistics footprint I make the assumption that 24 155 mm rounds equals 30 120 mm rounds when it comes to effect. A complete 155 mm round has a weight of around 60 kg, made up of a 45 kg shell and a 15 kg charge. Similarly, a complete 120 mm round weighs around 32 kg, of which 25 kg is the shell and 7 kg the charge. The fire mission of the 120 mm gun would then come in at two-thirds the total weight of the 155 mm fire mission. If you include a casing to allow for the automatic handling of the ammunition a complete 120 mm round comes in at approximately 40 kg, meaning the fire mission is just 83% of the weight of the 155 mm one. However, fixed ammunition require more space, and the 120 mm fire mission with fixed ammunition will take up approximately 20% more space. However, comparing against fixed 155 mm ammunition the latter will weigh 70% more and take up 40% more space. The benefit of fixed ammunition is that in the same way as with Bkan and 120/80 it is possible to have a higher degree of automation when firing and handling the rounds. This in turn leads to a higher rate of fire and better effect in target. The conclusion is that with fixed 120 mm ammunition you get a similar logistic footprint, but with a round that is more easy to handle and you will be able to get off more rounds which will give as good or better effect in target compared to 155 mm. In real terms, a full charge 120 mm round with a fixed casing will weigh less than 40 kg, and can easily be carried from vehicle to vehicle by a single soldier. A 155 mm round with a fixed casing will come in at 85 kg and will need two persons to carry it, not the least due to the uneven weight distribution. If an autoloader could use the kind of combustible casings that tank rounds use, it should be possible to shave a few additional kilograms of the 120 mm round.

Bkan 1 with the original loader. Note the size of the 155 mm fixed ammunition in the loading frame.

Autoloading versus manual

To achieve good effect in target a high rate of fire is a good tool, and to reach a high rate of fire the ammunition and its handling plays a big role. 155 mm howitzers usually have a rate of fire that varies between 3 to 10 rounds per minute with separate loading ammunition. These are usually either completely manual or equipped with different kinds of automatic handling and loading aids. Some have the ability to fire off a few quick rounds, before settling in for a lower sustained rate of fire. E.g. Haubits 77A was able to fire three shots in less than ten seconds. This is possible as the charges are put in a casing, which allows for the use of a very quick vertically sliding breech block. The shell and the casing is then loaded with a hydraulic rammer. To fire really quickly fixed casings are needed. E.g. Bkan 1 has a technical rate of fire of 18 rounds/min. The 12/80 is another example albeit with 120 mm calibre. With an autoloader the 12/80 fires off 16 rounds/min. There are even faster Swedish guns. 120 mm anti-aircraft gun 4501 has a rate of fire of no less than 80 rounds/min. The 23 ton heavy gun carries 52 rounds.

12 cm Lvakan 4051

Another Swedish rapid-firing gun, although in 105 mm, is the Strv 103. As far as I remember, the technical rate of fire is 26-27 rounds/min and the tank carries 50 rounds. To note is that the sole 155 mm field artillery piece amongst these was the Bkan 1. The reason behind this is, amongst other things, that the mechanism becomes large and heavy. It is also unable to bring along more than 14 rounds. This is likely one of the reasons why modern 155 mm guns almost universally have separate loading munitions. The second, and perhaps even more important issue, is that one wants to be able to set the charge size for each round, and not be limited to a pre-set number of each charge that is set already when the ammunition is manufactured. In 120 mm it should however be possible to benefit from the carefree handling of fixed ammunition and bring more rounds, without the rounds becoming overly large.

Autoloaders is however not an end in itself, except when it comes to the firing. As mentioned earlier, 120 mm is considerably easier to move by hand. This includes fixed case 120 mm ammunition, which thanks to its below 40 kg weight can be moved in the same way ammunition was replenished in Strv 103.

Will there be something else than 155 mm if we buy a new system?

I have a hard time believing that, 155 mm is in all essence even more standard than 7.62 mm. That is why I describe this as an unreasonable brigade artillery. If one would start from a clean sheet, it is however entirely possible that with the technological advances of today the conclusion would be that another calibre would be better suited for supporting the brigades. Perhaps based on some of the reasoning found above.

But we just have to accept that we do not begin with a blank sheet, instead there are several limiting factors that affect the outcome. At the same time, evident truths need to be questioned every now and then. E.g. the miniaturisation of electronics allow for ever smaller rounds to become “smart”. If the reasoning behind 155 mm was the need for precision guided munitions the choice of calibre could be reevaluated now. However, over time factors such as standardisation have become important and will lead to the continued use of 155 mm.

Are we in the West looking for the right capabilities?

As a short sidetrack to the discussion on calibre choice I would like to touch upon two topics that I believe are receiving too much attention: the race for range and extreme precision.

With each new gun there are new solutions to push the range out even further, from L/39 barrels to L/52 as the new standard, and now barrels out to L/58 are discussed even for guns such as the M777.

M777A2 and M777ER with L/52 and L/58 barrels respectively. Source: US Army

Base bleed, RAP, and ramjet projectiles are other ways of reaching further. It is easy to see the benefit of reaching longer, and easy to quantify range as a requirement or selling point, which is why it is often in the spotlight. But range threatens to become the “24 cm higher cabin” of the artillery, an extreme cost driver. Longer range also places indirect requirements on extreme accuracy, no longer is just “rather accurate” good enough. The technology behind the increased accuracy is and will continue to be expensive. This means that the ammunition used to fire far away and with high accuracy becomes too expensive to use for massed fires. The most extreme example is the 155 mm guns of the Zumwalt-class which were supposed to receive rounds capable of reaching 153 km. The price tag became close to 1,000,000 USD/round as opposed to the planned 35,000 USD. The contract was revoked and the destroyers now lack a suitable round for their guns.

There need to be an analysis regarding the missions of individual systems. For a multitool, which is the role one can say that the Haubits 08 has been forced into, long range is a must. If it is a battalion-level asset, the conclusion might be that the 8 km range of a mortar is enough. If the mission is to support the fighting battalions of a brigade, the requirements need to be in sync with those demands, and not necessarily with those of the multitool. Was the reasoning behind the 150 km range of the Zumwalt’s 155 mm guns really correct? Should one have opted for another system if 150 km range was demanded?

The quest for accuracy partly comes from the increased range, but also from some kind of engineering bewitchment for perfection. Accuracy is very nice when the enemy headquarters is located or when the enemy has put their fighting positions close to a hospital. But at the end of the day, artillery is an area effect weapon, and to achieve effect it is enough to hit the target area instead of aiming for the bullseye with every round. I am worried that we in the West is forgetting this. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “Isn’t it jolly good to have better accuracy, that we can get the same effect with fewer rounds.” I have tried to explain that it is enough to be in the right area and that it is more important to be able to fire large volumes in many places, which increases the odds that the enemy will be suppressed in many different spots. Often the fire mission is based on an estimate on the enemy and the terrain, and not on an observation. If one can see the enemy both we and the enemy can use direct fire, and it is the losses that causes which we wish to avoid. Why then aim for a few expensive bullseyes and completely overlook massed fires? Making this case is often like talking to the wall. I will however persist, gutta cavat lapidem.

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The Long and the Short of Finnish Guns

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

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

The Heavy-hitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D-30

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

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

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

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

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

The Headache

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

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

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

‘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.