Strategic depth and Alliances

“American newspaper – the concept of strategic depth: Finland could withdraw to Sweden if attacked”

That is the headline chosen by Finnish news source Verkkouutiset when retelling Jane’s Defence Weekly’s recent story that the Swedish Air Force has been working on a concept of enabling Finnish fighters to operate from Swedish bases in times of crises. The idea is both extremely radical, and blatantly obvious, a combination uncomfortably common in Finnish national security.

In short, the interviewed officer was colonel Magnus Liljegren, responsible for the production of Swedish air units and equipment at the Swedish Defence Forces’ general staff (designated C PROD FLYG in the Swedish Defence Forces). The colonel stated that “Finland is absolutely our top priority partner right now […] they are looking to us in order to increase their operational depth. If they need to withdraw they can move into our country and use our bases.” (full article over at JDW).

Three different fighters from three different countries of the NORDEFCO (Nordic defense cooperation) overflying Turku airport. Source: Own picture

From a strictly military perspective, this is an obvious solution. With the increased range of modern air defence and surveillance systems the Finnish air space is more or less contested throughout from the start of a conflict. There are significant benefits coming from operating from Kallax compared to Oulunsalo, not to mention Kuopio-Rissala.

Side note: if Finnish fighters were planning to use Swedish bases, there’s really only one contender that makes sense for HX. The  benefits of deploying to a base that already has everything you need to operate your aircraft in combat compared to having to bring your logistics train with you is huge. I haven’t seen any indication this would have been a marketing stunt (and I don’t believe it is), but we really should sort this out before 2021 if there’s a chance we would like to run along with the concept.

At the same time, it would be an unprecedented political step. I highly doubt there is a Finnish politician ready to sign the paper saying we would join in the fray if Russian troops suddenly appeared on Gotland. Likewise, if we are supposed to use Swedish bases when attacked, that would mean that Sweden would join in a conflict they might not (yet) be part of.

While that might be a hard sell to the voters, it would in fact make sense. If Finland would react to a Crimea-like coup aimed towards Gotland by mobilising the reserve and dispatching air and sea units to throw out the attackers by force and protect shipping around the island, there is in my opinion a higher likelihood that the conflict would stay local and limited in time. The reasoning behind this is the markedly higher deterrence value of the Finnish Defence Forces once mobilised and dispersed compared to their peacetime stance, as well as the increased striking power of the combined Finnish-Swedish forces. For Sweden, the situation is similar. In effect, Finland shields the northern part of Sweden from direct aggression, allowing the numerically small Swedish Army to concentrate their two brigades in the southern parts of the country, something that would also provide Finland with a measure of flanking support. The strength of the defence forces operating together is also larger than the sum of them individually, as the relatively small sizes of both countries means that some capabilities are found only in one of them, and that their combined size can reach quantitative thresholds (‘critical mass’) in areas where this would not be possible individually, both geographic and capability wise.

What is interesting is that the whole issue has been completely overshadowed by the rather similar quarrel over Finland’s response if Estonia was to be attacked. The whole thing started when Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long report stating that a major split had developed between the president (and government) and the parliament. President Sauli Niinistö (yes, we have three different Niinistös in Finnish politics, all representing different parties) of the centre-right National Coalition Party (fi. Kokoomus sv. Samlingspartiet) represents the more “allowing” line, found in the recent Government Defence Report published in February:

“Finland will actively and extensively strengthen its international defence cooperation and other networking as well as develop the abilities to provide and receive international assistance.

[…]

Finland, as a Member State of the European Union, could not remain an outsider should threats to security emerge in its vicinity or elsewhere in Europe. […] Finland will not allow the use of its territory for hostile purposes against other states. On the basis of the Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy this does not limit Finland’s prospects to provide and receive international assistance or to intensify defence cooperation.”

This is not an uncontroversial view in Finnish politics. Former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja has apparently been able to gather enough support to get a majority of the parliament behind a strongly worded statement arguing for a reduction in Finnish participation in NATO-exercises and a ban on any Finnish military aid to Estonia in case the country would be attacked. Tuomioja represents the left flank of the Finnish Social Democrat Party, and the veteran politician has not only been able to enlist the support of his party (currently the largest opposition party), but also of the Left Alliance (fi. Vasemmistoliitto sv. Vänsterförbundet) and part of the MP’s from the ruling Centre Party (fi. Keskusta sv. Centerpartiet). The rebellion has deep roots in Finnish post-war history, when the Centre Party was the ideological home of Finlandisation, and the party has still a significant amount of people longing for the ‘good old days’ when we enjoyed a special relationship with the Soviet Union (i.e. not being able to have an independent foreign policy despite not being occupied or a Soviet satellite). While the situation during the Cold War might have called for some careful maneuvering, it surpasses my understanding why Finland in today’s world would strive to stand on the edge between western democracies and a Russian autocracy. This is especially strange considering that both Russia and our European allies consider us an integral part of the ‘West’, NATO-membership or not.

The report in Iltalehti caused considerable buzz. Niinistö and Tuomioja sternly denied there being any open issues between the two, while Yle in turn reported that the argument wasn’t as much between the president and the parliament, as it was between the government and the parliament. Anyhow, Finland has once again managed to make a complete mess of what our current policy vis-a-vis helping Estonia would be, and our southern brothers only made the embarrassment worse when Estonian MoD Margus Tsahkna went to the press (and Twitter) to assure us that we need not worry, Estonia will come to Finland’s aid in case we need help…

The youth organisation of the Finns Party (fi. Perussuomalaiset, sv. Sannfinländarna) in turn took the opportunity to suggest a joint Finnish-Estonian volunteer corps, ready to come to the aid of whichever country would be attacked (original presser in Finnish, blog post on the issue in English). While wordings such as “Failure to provide assistance would be a cold statement to our brothers and sisters. Finnish-Ugrian culture is best defended by the Finno-Ugric peoples themselves” are not necessarily ones I personally would use, the contrast to the careful language found amongst the more pro-Russian politicians is stark. While there to a certain extent do exist a left-right fault line in Finnish politics when it comes to Russia, there are also significant inner-party fault lines, as well as a difference between different generations.

The presser also highlights the difference between the staunchly anti-Kremlin line of the Finns Party, and the pro-Kremlin narrative of many of Europe’s populist parties. This was painstakingly obvious when one of the leading national security voices of the Swedish Democrat’s party started advocating for Sweden to declare their intention not to give assistance to the Baltic countries, using an imaginary Finnish “decision not to help” as justification.

Daniel Vikström: So when Russia threatens and invades its neighbors to secure its geostrategic interests, we should be humble about this?
Mikael Jansson: Finland has declared that it cannot assist the Baltic countries if they are attacked, Sweden should do the same. That is NATO’s task #defencepolicy

Added to this all, Finland ratified the Treaty of Lisbon nine years ago. The Treaty famously include clause 42.7, the so called solidarity clause.

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

That an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” would include direct military contribution would seem a no-brainer, not to mention the current talking point of whether NATO fighters could use Finnish airspace to defend Estonia in case the country was attacked.

The range of a number of modern Russian weapons systems if based in Tallinn. Courtesy of Petri Mäkelä

To sum it up, even if we skip any moral responsibility to help our neighbours, Finland has a number of self-serving reasons to intervene, or at least allow other countries to intervene (we don’t really want invading smaller countries to be an accepted part of international politics, and Russian weapons stationed on Gotland or in Estonia would be really bad for us). In addition, we have actually signed an international agreement promising to do so. That the prime minister apparently has seen a covert rebellion in his party over this is deeply worrying.

Under Scottish Skies – Air Superiority

While the Typhoon so far has seen combat solely in the air-to-ground role, there is no mistaking in that the primary role of RAF Lossiemouth lies elsewhere. The base is the northern of RAF’s two quick-reaction alert bases, abbreviated as QRA(N). As such, a pair of armed Typhoons stand guard around the clock, year round. These are airborne within ten minutes of the scramble, often with time to spare. While the usual ‘bogey’ for QRA(S) down at RAF Coningsby is an airliner gone silent (usually due to having the wrong radio frequency), RAF Lossiemouth handles the classic North Sea intercept of any Russian bombers coming down round Norway. This includes “Bears in different versions”, presumably meaning that both the Tu-95 bomber version and the Tu-142 maritime patrol versions has been sighted, as well as the Tu-160 Blackjack. The latter is something of a newcomer in the area, starting to make appearances only post-Crimea. By the time any bomber approaches the British isles, they are always escorted by Norwegian F-16s, which hand over the mission to the Typhoons. Notably, the Typhoons has been on station and escorted the Tu-160 during the strikes in Syria which have been flown along the western route, circumnavigating the UK.

Scottish mountains

“Deliver QRA(I)N and prepare for global operations”
RAF Lossiemouth mission statement

All QRA flights are armed with a mix of four ASRAAM short-range IR-missiles and four AMRAAM medium-range missiles, of which two ASRAAM would be traded for another two AMRAAM in case of a ‘wartime load’. In addition, the aircraft are sporting two supersonic drop tanks and a full load of 27 mm ammunition for the internal Mauser gun. While RAF’s QRA flights haven’t had to open fire upon intercepted aircrafts in modern times, the risk is always there. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Baltics, where the Typhoon face the most modern fighters that Russia has to offer.

Wing Commander Billy Cooper is the officer commanding 6 Squadron, and an experienced fighter pilot who has logged over 1,300 hours on the Typhoon after transitioning to it from the Tornado F.3, RAF’s earlier QRA jet. Before joining the Lossiemouth based squadron, he took part in a Baltic Air Policing tour with the Coningsby based 3(F) Squadron, being deployed to Šiauliai in Lithuania. The detachment brought some interesting challenges to the RAF, as the facilities of the old Soviet base were overcrowded. A number of portable cabins were shipped out for the personnel to live in, while the Typhoons were allocated unheated soft-skin hangars throughout the stay. While these did offer a measure of protection from the wind and precipitation, this still meant that all maintenance work on the planes were performed in whatever the outside temperature happened to be. While the detachment had “relatively small issues with the climate”, as Cooper put it, a more unexpected issue appeared. Soon after arrival, the British airmen spotted a “large, elk-like creature” towards the far end of the base. Large mammals was not something that RAF was used to operating around, but with the proper procedures in place, air operations could continue.

If the QRA(N) gets scrambled once every few months, BAP is another issue completely. The latest tour by 2(AC) Squadron to Ämari air base in Estonia resulted in 42 intercepted aircraft during their 4 month long stay. In addition to the normal weaponry a targeting pod was often carried, being particularly useful in the identification of ships. Some targets are trickier than others, with Cooper mentioning one of his personal highlights being the intercept of a Kamov Ka-27 helicopter launched from a Russian frigate. After he had intercepted the helicopter, the Finnish Air Force also appeared and closed in to take a look on it.

Cooper

“We were briefed quite closely to not interact with them too much”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON

The behavior of the Russian pilots varied widely, and while the British pilots where briefed to maintain their cool, Cooper was under the impression that their Russian colleagues were more free to engage their adversaries as they saw fit. This included aggressively turning against any intercepting fighters trying to take pictures of them, and while no-one tries to cause a mid-air collision, the short distances between the aircrafts (Typhoons often closing to within 65 meters of their targets) meant that the risk certainly was there. This kind of behavior was more common if the Russian fighters were flying escort for transport or attack/bomber aircraft, and apparently also depended on the personal style of the pilots. “Sometimes you closed in and thought for yourself ‘isn’t that the one from last week’, and sure enough he starts doing the same kind of things this time around as well,” Cooper explained. When asked whether he had experienced the kind of aggressive flare dumping described by the Swedish Air Force, he commented that he hadn’t personally seen it, “but it wouldn’t surprise me”. Both sides carry flares on a regular basis, and in addition to being defensive countermeasures, their purpose does include (stern) signalling. Some Russian pilots did use other means of less-than-friendly communication, while RAF’s pilots stuck to smiles and occasional waves.

Cooperation with the Finnish Air Force is not uncommon for the BAP, with Finnish Air Force and BAP sharing a common recognised air picture and sharing data over Link 16. During intercepts over the Gulf of Finland, it was not uncommon to have a pair of BAP fighters shadowing a Russian target from the south, with a pair of Finnish F/A-18C Hornets doing the same from the north. Operating together in this manner is no problem, as both the RAF and Finnish Air Force share the same doctrine and has the ability to use the same data link. “It is the same as operating with a NATO-country”, Cooper sums up. In addition to chance encounters on intercepts, the two air forces regularly do schedule joint training missions.

Cooper and media

“You need something that can fight long-range and dominate short-range”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON

The nature of aerial combat also was also something which came up. With the advent of a new generation of long-range missiles and sensors, many have concluded that the classic within-visual-range dogfight is (finally) dead. Cooper wasn’t as sure, noting that he could see quite a few scenarios where a fighter would find itself uncomfortably close to its target before being able to open fire. The main question was to what extent the rules of engagement would allow for firing at targets beyond visual range, or if a visual confirmation will be required first. In any case, RAF has taken their Typhoons on exercises against both Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Malaysian Su-30MKM, and contrary to some Indian reports, the “Typhoon did extremely well” against the Su-30MKI at close range, while long range engagements were a matter of “clubbing seals” (an expression BAE was quick to explain is fighter pilot jargon for easy air-to-air kills, in case someone would have misunderstood its use…). In the end, “the Indians weren’t happy”, despite their pilots spending much of their time practicing within visual range combat according to Cooper.

It is no secret that while the Finnish Air Force is looking for a fighter able to handle a range of missions in a full-scale conventional war, the main mission during peacetime is QRA and air policing in the crowded airspace over the Baltic Sea. This is also a point which BAE likes to push, and certainly one of the better selling points of the Typhoon. That isn’t to say that BAE is trying to sell the fighter with its peacetime mission as the argument (arguably not a great idea…), as they are clear with that they think the Typhoon is a great multirole fighter all around. It just happens to be very good at what the Finnish Air Force does in their everyday line of work. At least according to the sales pitch.

The speed is well-known, with the Eurofighter being able to supercruise (though the exact prestanda in supercruise mode is somewhat controversial, with anything between Mach 1.1 to 1.5 being quoted depending on the source and load conditions), but Cooper was also keen to point out the range of the aircraft. Operating alongside the Polish MiG-29’s in BAP, the importance of endurance quickly became evident. While Cooper noted that the Polish Air Force pilots were professional and eager to do a good job, at the same time they did suffer problems due to the notorious short range of their aircraft. At the time these were early production MiG-29 9.12 from ex-DDR stocks, while the Polish detachment which took up the BAP-mission this week is flying F-16’s instead of MiG-29’s. The Typhoon, usually operating with twin supersonic drop tanks, were able to stay on target, despite what appeared to be efforts to shake them off. “Sometimes when the Russian flight came to Kaliningrad, instead of landing they just turned around and headed back north, probably thinking we would have to break off,” Cooper remembered. “We didn’t.”

Funding Nemo

The Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup need the Navy Nemo.

That’s the short version of the story. Acquiring the Patria Navy Nemo advanced mortar system mounted on a small vessel that can keep up with the other crafts used by the Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup is exactly the kind of force multiplier that is needed if today’s slimmed version of the Finnish Defence Forces is to be able to not only survive but also to conduct offensive operations on the modern battlefield.

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A prototype Patria Nemo mounted on the earlier U600/Jurmo/Watercat M12-class. Source: Patria
As I touched upon in my post on the Åland islands, the archipelago is a battlefield unlike any other. There is no single frontline, and anyone attempting to control all islands will soon find themselves overextended to the point where they are unable to defend against a determined attacker. Instead, the defender has to concentrate their forces on strategically important islands, from where they can then extend zones of control over the lesser ones. This creates a situation of islands becoming isolated strongholds, with periods of calm being interrupted only by raiding or outright assaults. The fighting is usually swift and brutal, taking place at extremely close ranges, and with a very limited ability to either reinforce or resupply the forces involved, or to evacuate wounded for that matter. Any retreat will usually have to take place over open water under fire, further increasing the determination to stay in the fight for both sides. To only solution for the attacker is therefore to rely on surprise to create local man- and firepower superiority on a single island, throwing the defender literally into the sea. Naturally, on a grander scale this calls for a very delicate balance between overextending and leaving gaps in the defence, with the Hanko campaign of 1941 probably being the best historical case study to shine light on the dilemmas. Here, the Finns continuously stretched their defences too thin, and despite the Soviets strategically being on the defensive, they managed to score a number of operational victories by being active, keeping the initiative, and playing on the strengths of the attacker.

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Pioneers at Porsö, Hanko, during the first days of war in 1941. Source: SA-kuva
In the end, it was the German Army Group North and the fall of Estonia that sealed the fate of Krasnyi Gangut, the Soviet naval base in Hanko. After it became clear that the continued value of occupying the peninsula was limited, the Soviet withdrew the forces to Leningrad to shore up their defences there.

Many things have changed since the summer of 1941, but the basic premises remain the same. The Finnish Operational Forces, the spearhead of the defense forces and the units tasked with fighting the decisive battles, include a Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup, heir to the former wartime Coastal Jaeger Battalion (RANNJP). This is the sole unit in the Finnish wartime TOE which has offensive operations in the archipelago as its main task.

The Finnish Coastal Jaeger is a light infantryman. This is natural, as the archipelago rarely sees anything heavier than what can be carried on the back of the soldiers themselves. No-one is going to drag a MBT onto an island measured in acres, and even if an IFV could potentially be a formidable adversary after having swam out, it would probably soon find itself hampered by the close quarters of the battle. However, to establish the shock and awe needed for an amphibious assault, indirect fire will play a key role. The individual companies of the battlegroup feature light mortar troops with three 81 KRH 71 Y, 81 mm light mortars, and these are carried on two landing crafts. These are relatively light, and need to be set up on a neighbouring island within 5 km of the battlefield to be able to participate in the landing. Alternatively, they can be brought onshore and support the landing from the beach, as long as the island is big enough.

But while 81 mm mortars are a handy weapon for suppressing fire, the battelgroup will need heavier rounds if it is to be able to dig up an entrenched enemy. This is where the heavy mortars come into the picture. The TOE of RANNJP featured a single mortar battery with six heavy 120 KRH 92 mortars, towed by trucks. The basic mortar is a competent if somewhat unspectacular weapon. It is able to fire HE, flare, and smoke rounds, and features a max range of approximately 7.5 km while weighing in at 500 kg in its assembled state. However, it is the sole unit in the battlegroup that is carried on trucks and not on fast landing crafts, significantly reducing its effectiveness and tactical flexibility. This is especially problematic as the archipelago is a prime area for the indirect approach, with tactics such as skipping islands and isolating enemy strongholds by cutting off their supply lines. This becomes vastly harder if any potential targets have to be within ~7 km of controlled mainland where the small convoy of trucks and mortars can pull aside and set up positions. Further complicating the problem is the fact that the once mighty Finnish coastal artillery has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, with most of the fixed installations having been disbanded and the towed pieces having been transferred to the army. In conclusion, the Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup need a organic unit that can keep up with its fast assault crafts, and which can deliver heavy and accurate indirect fire support.

Luckily, the problem isn’t new, and as mentioned Patria has had a solution ready for over a decade. Originally this centred on the joint Finnish-Swedish AMOS twin-barrelled mortar turret. This was originally planned for and tested on the Swedish CB 90 H, but the 15 m long and relatively narrow vessel proved too unstable to carry the turret, and the number of rounds carried was also limited. The Swedish forces started planning for a new vessel, SB 2010, designed around the turret, while the Finnish Navy instead focused on a lighter single-barrel version. The former was eventually destined to remain on the drawing board, while the later became the Patria Nemo, which was successfully tested on a modified Jurmo-class fast landing craft. No order was however placed, and the focus of the Finnish coastal jaegers moved from the 15 m long Jurmo to the larger and significantly more versatile 18 m Jehu-class (also known as U700-class or Watercat M18 AMC).

Compared to the Jurmo, the Jehu marks a significant step up in all-round capability, including firepower (sporting a RWS with E/O-sights and 40 mm grenade-machine gun with a coaxial 7.62 mm PKM), protection (both ballistic and NBC), and mobility. Through and through, the Jehu is simply the best vessel in its (specialised) class worldwide, and has considerable room for up-gunning in the form of weapons fitted for but not with. This includes the Nemo, where the bigger hull would remedy the space and stability issues encountered on smaller vessels.

The Nemo-Jehu is exactly what the coastal jaegers need. Here is a highly mobile system, mounted on the same hull as their primary means of transport. It allows for both direct and indirect fire, and can also fire on the move. The mortar allows for operation of all standard 120 mm rounds, and has all the niceties one can expect from a modern turreted system (quick response time, MRSI with up to five rounds, high rate of fire, full NBC protection, …). While one should always treat the marketing slogans for modern systems with a grain of salt, there’s still plenty of situations where the simple number of barrels count for more than MRSI-capability, there is little to deny that three or four Nemo-Jehu’s would offer significantly better and more flexible indirect fire support than the current setup of six towed 120 mm mortars. The only benefit provided by the later would be the fact that they are easier to replace than the highly specialized vessels.

What it comes down to is, naturally, cost. In today’s cash-strapped defence forces, there are a number of programs that are all urgent and crucial for the units in question. Still, it is hard to argue that we should invest 34 million euros in new assault crafts for the coastal jaegers, and then not go the extra mile to buy three or four additional vessels to be able to effectively support the first twelve during amphibious landings. The unit price for the first twelve Jehu’s, a program cost of 34 million euros split equally over the whole series, is roughly 2.8 million euro per boat. The Nemo-Jehu is probably in the same range, depending on the number of hulls ordered, as the engineering costs are markedly lower. The concept is already here.

The Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup need the Navy Nemo. As the major units of the navy are starting to take shape, forgetting the smaller craft could prove to be a costly mistake.

In the interest of full disclosure, the company I work for is a component supplier for the Jehu-class.  All info given in this post is completely based on open sources, and represents my personal opinion only.

Back in Control

This morning the Swedish Commander in Chief surprised the better part of the Nordic defence community by announcing that the mechanised company recently deployed to Gotland as part of a readiness check won’t go back to Skövde where its parent unit, P4 Skaraborg Regiment, is based. Instead, active as of 0700 this morning, it is stationed on Gotland in defence of the island.

This is a drastic move. The new 18. Battlegroup, a mechanised battalion with a mechanised and an armoured company plus support units, is already in training on the Swedish mainland. However, it was planned to become active in 2018. This has now been changed to mid-2017, which together with the decision to transfer one of the existing companies to the island to cover part of the interim year is a major step (the company won’t have to cover the whole time alone, but the duty will be transferred to another unit at some point). Not only is there an economic issue at stake, with already the original Battlegroup Gotland putting added strain on an already stretched defence force, but also the personnel factor. Soldiers and officers with their homes and families in Skövde woke up to the news that they will be staying on the island until further notice. In a time when the defence forces has had a hard time filling its personnel needs, this is certainly not a decision taken lightly.

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The already classic picture of Swedish SOG operators running towards their Blackhawk helicopter taken during last year’s major exercise held in Gotland. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

The unit has been laughed at, including being called “The Kamikaze Company” on behalf of its small size (150 persons), and Russian propaganda noting with poorly hidden contempt that the soldiers aren’t yet allowed to use the local firing range.

However, the situation isn’t as desperate as it seems at first glance. For anyone planning to invade the island, there is a huge difference having to meet no active soldiers at all, or having to do with mechanised infantry including their CV 9040’s. These modern infantry fighting vehicles come equipped with the classic 40 mm Bofors sporting a mix of modern APDS and HE ammunition. In effect, it is no longer enough to land an airliner full of paras on Visby airport, but the invaders need to bring more men and heavier weaponry. This means further preparations involving more people, leading to a lower likelihood of achieving surprise, in turn allowing the defenders greater notice and the possibility to further strengthen their defences with more units. Even in the face of a full-blown amphibious invasion, the unit together with the local Home Guard should be able to conduct a fighting retreat towards Visby, making sure the harbour is in Swedish hands long enough to allow the rest of the regiment time to arrive.

What is worrying, however, is the fact that the temperature around the Baltic Sea seems to have dropped drastically in just a few weeks. Swedish blogger Jägarchefen notes that the last three weeks have featured a number of stern statements by both Swedish, US, and Russian officials. This has now culminated in the Swedish decision not to stand down after a readiness exercise. What exactly has caused this development is not publicly known, but at the same time US vice-president Biden gave Sweden some form of security guarantees in the face of Russian aggression, Swedish officials have quietly upgraded the risk of an “isolated attack on Sweden” from “improbable” to “low”. Rumours are also circulating that the recent Russian exercise caused the Swedish Defence Force to very nearly raise their readiness, something which has not happened since the Russian invasion of Crimea. From the Finnish viewpoint, there is a natural question that deserves to be asked:

What does the Swedish Commander-in-Chief know, that our politicians pretend they don’t?

On Research Vessels and AIS-tracking

The appearance of Russian research vessel Akademik Nikolaj Strakhov (named for the 19th century philosopher with the same name) just outside of the Swedish island of Gotland last week caused some discussions on social media. In this blog post I will address two topics that caused discussion, controversy, and sometimes, misunderstandings: The vessel itself, and the AIS-system used for tracking its whereabouts.

Akademik Nikolaj Strakhov

To start with the vessel is built in Finland in the mid-80’s as one of four sisterships of the Akademik Boris Petrov-class. It is government owned, and apparently operated in a geological research role. Interestingly enough, the vessel seems to have spent over a year broken down in the Indian Ocean, due to bureaucracy and a lack of funds. It is however now back in business, and homeported in Kaliningrad.

The towing of the vessel following it breaking down outside of the Maldives in 2013

To be clear, the vessel behaves exactly as a geological research vessel would. It reported restricted maneuverability, and slowly coasted along on a general North-South course just outside of Swedish waters. “Restricted maneuverability” is a defined term that refers to a vessel “which from the nature of her work is restricted in her ability to manoeuvre as required by these Rules [COLREG] and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel”. This can be due to e.g. the vessel conducting dredging, cable-laying, towing, mine-clearing, or launching aircrafts. What it doesn’t include is vessels that have broken down, which instead use the signals associated with “not under command”. However, general research work often do fall under the restricted maneuverability, and e.g. survey work would certainly require the vessel operating at slow speed while unable to deviate from the planned course.

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Akademik Strakhov’s sistership Akademik M. A. Lavrentyev being intercepted by Japanese Chikugo class frigate JS Tokachi (DE-218) and the US Navy while operating in the Sea of Japan in 1987. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy/PH2 (NAC) Paul Self

The problem obviously is that the Soviet Union and Russia has a long tradition of using civilian vessels such as trawlers and research vessels for more or less clandestine intelligence gathering. It is telling that the only picture of an Akademik Boris Petrov-class ship on Wikimedia is of Strakhov’s sister Lavrentyev being intercepted by Japanese and US forces. And with the Russians regularly employing all parts of the state apparatus in their full-spectrum conflict approach, it would be naive to believe that this scheme hasn’t continued. Is the Akademik a spy ship? That is impossible to say. FVÖ16, this year’s largest exercise conducted by the Swedish Air Force, saw Gotland having being host to a number of units. Also, the Nynäshman-Ventspils and Stockholm-Fårö-Ventspils subsea cables are found in the area, as well as the brand new Markgrafenheide-Helsinki cable, meaning that even if the vessel would only be conducting bottom mapping, the research would indirectly produce data which would be of some value for the Russian Armed Forces.

AIS

The AIS system is best thought of as the maritime equivalent to the frequently discussed transponders carried (or not) by aircraft. For the technical part, it sends packets of data over the normal VHF-band, which usually include the vessel’s name, position, heading/course, speed, and potentially a number of other pieces of information (turn rate, heel, destination, ETA, current mode of operation, …). The system provides a simple and inexpensive way of keeping track of traffic in an area, as well as quickly recognising important features of other ships operating in your area (such as restricted maneuverability). It is also employed in distress transmitters, with AIS-SART transmitters being small self-contained AIS-transmitters  that can either be brought along in a survival craft or, in the worst case, be left floating when a vessel sinks.

However, it is important to be aware of the limitations of AIS.

To begin with, as noted the AIS signal is basically just a pre-programmed and automatic VHF-radio. It has limited range, which can be limited further by bad weather or atmospheric conditions. It is also possibly to turn it off by the flick off a switch, in case you are heading somewhere you don’t want to be seen. There are legitimate scenarios where this is the case, with e.g. merchant ships turning off their transmitters if they fear they are at risk for a pirate attack.

The system has also started to show its age, and while this contributes in making it affordable, it also means that it is designed with openness prioritised over security. As such, it can relatively easily be compromised by hackers, which can feed false data into the system. This can include drawing fake tracks, creating non-existent vessels, or making existing ones disappear. While this caused quite a stir when a publicised case took place a few years back, there has so far not been any major incidents caused by hacking the system. One issue working against any malicious use being successful is that there are a number of happy amateurs, commercial, and state actors following up the marine traffic around the globe, so any attempt would be discovered in a relatively short span. Part of the reason behind this is that there regularly appear faulty information on the AIS system due to broken sensors or operator error. However, in the same way that transponders shouldn’t be seen as telling the whole truth on airliner traffic, AIS shouldn’t be trusted to convey the whole picture of maritime traffic.

Squadron 2020 – Made for the Finnish Coastline

laivue2020_uusi_logoThe acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes by the Finnish Navy as part of the Squadron 2020 (fi. Laivue 2020) program received some serious flak by BGen (ret.) Lauri Kiianlinna in Helsingin Sanomat last Friday, of exactly the kind I warned would become widespread due to the Navy’s somewhat lacking marketing of the project. While I agree with Kiianlinnas assessment that the Army need further funds and that the ground based air defence needs to be fleshed out, many of the points raised in opposition of the project are either based on misunderstanding or in some instances flat-out wrong. As noted, this is partly a failure on the part of the Navy, who in today’s economy more than ever has to explain not only what they need, but also why. A simple “Trust us, we’ve checked the issue” (while correct) is no longer enough to the public or the other cash-strapped branches of the defence forces.

Finland is for all practical purposes an island, and the only way we will keep our supply lines open for any extended time is through cargo vessels that enter the Baltic Sea in the Danish Straits, before sailing up the length of the Swedish coast until arriving in Finnish ports. This means that while the navy cannot win any wars for Finland, it can certainly lose them.

As such, Finland will need a navy to escort our merchant vessels at the very least until they reach Swedish waters. Currently this is done by a number of smaller vessels operating together to perform different individual roles:

  • The Hämeenmaa-class minelayers are operating as the squadron leader/flagship, while having a limited ASW- and anti-air capability
  • The Hamina-class FAC provide anti-ship missiles and a limited anti-air capability
  • The Rauma-class FAC provide ASW-capability in the form of the only dedicated submarine-hunting sensor in the Finnish Navy as well as featuring limited ASW-weaponry. If the towed array is left home, it can instead use anti-ship missiles

It should be noted that a three-ship squadron like this faces a number of tough choices:

  • A total of no more than 16 ITO 04 (‘Umkhonto’) surface-to-air missiles featuring a short 14 km range are available for air cover
  • For the Rauma to find a submarine it needs to listen for it, meaning that it would prefer to keep some distance to the other ships. However, doing so lessens the protection offered by the short-range ITO 04 mounted on the other vessels
  • None of the vessels sport any torpedoes, so If a submarine is found the vessels will attack it by driving towards it well within torpedo range while firing ASW-mortars

These ships, especially the Haminas, are very potent for their class. However, there is only so much equipment that can be fitted into the limited hull sizes available. Both of the FAC-classes also lack the ability to operate in ice, due to their light (and vulnerable) aluminium hulls. Their small size also seriously hamper their endurance, forcing them to return to port at short intervals. For a navy in which hiding in the cluttered archipelago is a central part of the doctrine, having to frequently return to fixed points to bunker up on fuel, supplies, and weapons, is far from ideal.

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The Finnish idea regarding how to kill a submarine is drive towards it at speed, fire of a salvo of these at 400 meters, and hope the submarine doesn’t figure out a firing solution for their  18+ km ranged torpedoes. Saab Elma ASW-600 on a Rauma-class FAC. Source: own picture

The need for bigger hulls

The size is not a product of the urge to venture further into the Southern Baltic Sea or on international missions, but of the need to provide vessels that are able to operate in Finnish waters year-round, able to handle the varied threats they may encounter.

This is where the main problems of the opinion piece are. The new ships will not further strain the limited air defence resources available, they will not be sitting ducks, and they will not be restricted by ice. On the contrary, they will be able to hide better than the current fleet due to being less reliant on visiting known locations, they will carry their own air defence, and their big steel hulls will offer them ice-going capability as well as better resistance in the face of battle damage.

Of great interest is the vertical launch system (VLS) seen on the render pictures released by the navy. I have discussed these in greater detail on the blog earlier, but the conclusion is that they would bring a marked increase in the air defence of not only the ship themselves, but also of the general area of operations. In fact, in the best of world’s we might even get to see the Aster 30 onboard the corvettes, which would finally give the (southern parts of the) country a measure of protection against ballistic missiles. As such, the claim that these would tie up valuable air defence resources is wrong, and instead they might actually free up army units.

The discussion regarding the range of the weaponry is somewhat simplified. The max practical range is nowadays rarely reliant on what the sales material claim the missiles are capable of. Instead, the main question is how far out the enemy can be accurately located. Another issue that one rarely want to fire all missiles straight at the enemy, because A) it makes it easier to defend against compared to if the salvo is routed to come in from different angles at the same time, and B) it gives the enemy a vector to follow back to the location of our firing battery. To sum it up, the Navy wont fire anti-ship missiles, either from trucks or naval vessels, to Gotland any time soon, regardless of how the range rings look on the map.

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One of the concept renders presented by the navy. Note hatch for towed array at stern(?) and VLS-array at the front. Source: Finnish Navy

When it comes to anti-submarine weapons, it seems like we will finally get a ship armed with torpedoes and proper sensors, which will make it possible to locate and fight off one of the most elusive threats our shipping lanes currently face. This is especially important as we currently lack any kind of airborne ASW-capability, and the only way to find submarines lurking outside of our archipelago is through the use of ships.

The other possibility is to assume that we can keep our waters protected without own ships, which is an interesting concept on paper. By employing shore-based anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles we would be able to ward off any intruders, or so the theory goes. However, by the very nature of these systems, they lack the operational mobility to keep up with merchant vessels moving in Finnish waters along the coast, and as such need to be pre-positioned so that they can cover the expected enemy attack vectors. They then need to be fed target data, and feature a redundancy in both firing units and sensors, so that the enemy isn’t able to create a gap in our defences where they can strike at our lifeline with impunity simply by knocking out a battery or two.

This can all be done, but to be fair it is highly doubtful if this advanced network of mutually supporting coastal sensors, truck-mounted anti-ship batteries, submarine hunting helicopters, and surface-to-air missiles, would be any cheaper than the corvettes. Crucially, the system would lack the flexibility offered by a surface squadron of multirole vessels, which are able to move with the merchant convoys, carrying their own sensors as well as weapons to fend of air, surface, and sub-surface threats. The similarities to the discussions regarding ground based air defences contra getting new fighters are striking. This isn’t a case of “either/or”, but rather that a strong defence will have to be made up of multiple layers of different systems with their own strengths and weaknesses working in unison, and I fully expect the Navy to start looking into replacing the truck-mounted MTO 85M at some point in the future.

When it comes to coastal defence, I would like to see Squadron 2020 and ground units being networked with our HX-fighters, to let the fighters provide accurate target data through the use of a modern data link while letting the others act as silent ‘shooters’ with their radars turned off.  This is a concept which for example Saab already has as an option for which includes both their air units and naval command and control systems, and one would assume that there is a requirement for HX and Squadron 2020 to be able to communicate with each other.

It isn’t about the Navy against the Army or the Air Force. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Epilogue: The Panssarilaivat – White Elephants of the 1930’s

The Väinämöinen-class of two coastal defence ships (fi. Panssarilaivat) has long been regarded as the schoolbook example of wasted money. Being expensive and manpower intensive, they took almost no part in the Second World War, and the navy still managed to lose one of them with a large loss of men during one of their few wartime sorties.

However, while I agree that it was a strange decision to invest in major surface units when the army lacked anti-tank weaponry and artillery shells, the other side of the story is often forgotten. The war did play out in an extremely surprising way. The Winter War was fought almost entirely while the sea was frozen, and when the Continuation War broke out it didn’t take long until the Germans had occupied the whole southern coast of the Baltic Sea from the Danish Straits up to the outskirts of Leningrad. This made the relatively strong and modern Baltic Fleet trapped in their bases around the city until the end of the Continuation War. The exception was the submarine fleet, which every summer broke out to try and wreak havoc amongst Finnish and German shipping in the face of Finnish and German subchasers and submarines (until the Germans and Finns installed two nets over the entire Gulf of Finland!).

If things would have played out differently, and Finland would have had to stand alone, two floating coastal fortresses could suddenly have proved to be rather useful after all.

Estonia Leads the Way

In the stream of Russian snap drills that have come to be part of the ”new normal”, news broke today of a more surprising snap exercise, held by Kaitsevägi, the Estonian Defence Forces. In a surprise move, Estonia has launched an unannounced exercise involving the whole standing army made up of two infantry brigades, the aptly named 1. and 2. Jalaväebrigaad (est. infantry brigade). The exercise does not include calling up reservists.

What is truly astonishing is the rapid expansion undertaken by the Estonian Defence Forces as a whole. Before the Russian invasion of Crimea the Estonian army consisted of a single light infantry brigade, featuring wheeled transports in the form of the Patria (Sisu) XA-180EST and XA-188 APC as the only vehicles with any kind of armour protection, and while a nice long-term expansion plan had been drawn up already in 2007, little of this had materialised. The Estonian army was a professional force with ample of experience from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from UN missions, but it was woefully undersized and lacked key weapons systems and capabilities to be able to defend its homeland from an aggression by a modern mechanized force.

However, everything changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a number of planned procurements shifted into high gear. These included the acquisition of surplus CV9035NL infantry fighting vehicles from the Netherlands (also source of the earlier XA-188) and modern Javelin anti-tank missiles, of which especially the former is a key element in the 1. Jalaväebrigaad’s transformation into a (light) mechanised brigade. The years since have also seen the delivery of the first Mistral M3 short-range air defence missiles, which together with the Saab Giraffe radars they are networked to significantly boosts the integral air defence capability of the 1. Brigade.

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Corporal Roman Metsatalu from the Scouts Battalion on a foot patrol in western Baghdad. Estonian Army soldiers served with US Army soldiers from 10th Mountain Division, as part of the Multi-National Corps to secure a 15-kilometer section of road in western Baghdad, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Source: Wikimdeia Commons/Sgt. David Foley, U.S. Army
The numbers have also grown, with the Kaitseliit (volunteer Defence League, roughly corresponding to the National Guard) receiving a record number of applicants in 2015 and crucially the 2. Jalaväebrigaad being activated in 2014. The brigade might be young, but it traces its roots back to the Estonian War of Independence and the Julius Kuperjanov Partisan Battalion (est. Ülemleitnant Kuperjanovi partisanide pataljon). With the 1. Brigade being formed around the capital of Tallinn in the northern parts of the country, the new brigade is situated in the south-eastern parts of the country, proudly wearing the arms of Livonia and colours of the city of Tartu, opposite the border of Pskov and the Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division.

Even more importantly, the army has stepped up its training regime, both in size and in complexity. The annual spring exercise of 2014, Kevadtorm 2014, was the largest held in the country up to that date, but was surpassed by the corresponding Siil 2015 exercise the following year. Siil 2015 was not only the biggest Estonian exercise to date, but it was also the first time the whole brigade took to the field to practice as a coherent unit, the first time the artillery battalion fired all their guns as a unit, and the exercise ended with the first time the whole brigade stood at attention together in a magnificent lõpurivistus (literally “finishing alignment”). To these can now be added today’s snap drill, specifically meant to test the ability of the army to respond swiftly to the emergence of a new threat (something one can’t help but feel would be a sorely needed exercise in Finland as well).

While Tallinn might be worried about their eastern neighbour, they are certainly not going to just lay flat in the hope of not provoking the bear. Instead, they are doing the best they can to plug the holes identified in the capabilities of their armed forces. The fact that certain key capabilities, such as air policing, are provided by NATO, means that they seem to be doing quite well with the limited resources they can muster with 2% of the GDP.

The next time anyone tries, Estonia is determined to not give in without a fight.