Meripuolustuspäivä 2017 – Maritime Defence Day

The annual Finnish maritime defence day jointly arranged by the Navy and the Naval Reserve took place in Turku this year, and with a record-breaking audience. The program followed the established form, with lectures on the state of the Navy and the Reserve, as well as a panel discussion on current topics. On the whole, the Baltic Sea has become more important strategically and militarily over the last decade, but the current year has so far been relatively calm when compared to the last few ones.

Vice admiral Veijo Taipalus, commander of the Finnish Navy. Source: Own picture

As readers of the blog all know by now, the Navy is living in exciting times. The Pansio-class MLU is finishing up, after which the focus will shift to the MLU of the four Hamina-class fast attack craft. As has been reported earlier, the vessels will gain a serious anti-submarine capability in the form of light torpedoes. The big problem is still their lack of endurance and a room for growth, and I haven’t seen an answer to whether the needed ASW sensors and weaponry can be carried together with a full complement of missiles. The limited ice-going capability also won’t be going anywhere, which nicely brings us back to Squadron 2020 and it’s design.
 

Some ask if it’s too big for our archipelago.

It isn’t.

The noteworthy thing about the project was in many ways the lack of any spectacular news, in that everything seems to be fine. The acquisition enjoys broad political support, and is moving on according to schedule. This in turn means that the upcoming year will bring quite a number of interesting developments, with a number of key contracts awaiting awardment as well as procurement decisions to be made. Bigger news was perhaps last week’s speech by the chief of defence, general Lindberg, who noted that the Navy’s identified need was for six to eight vessels. Still, I won’t be holding my breath for a political decision to increase the size of the project.

The coat of arms of Pohjanmaa, here seen on the walls of Heikkilä sotilaskoti, will soon grace the first SQ2020-vessel. Source: Own picture

In the mid-term, the last fixed coastal guns are closing in on their due date. The 130 TK is a highly advanced weapon for it’s class, with a surprisingly high level of protection thanks to being embedded in the granite of the Finnish archipelago. Still, there’s no way around the fact that their fixed positions hamper their survivability. Following their eventual retirement there will be a gap between the long-range surface-to-surface missiles of the ongoing PTO2020 procurement and the short-range RO2006 (Eurospike-ER). Exactly how this firepower gap for intermediate range and/or targets of medium size will be solved is still open, though it was noted (without further details) that there are some “impressive capabilities” found amongst modern anti-tank missiles. Might this be a reference to the Spike-NLOS as a replacement for the 130 TK? The quoted range of “up to 30 km” isn’t too far off from that of the 130 TK.

Like the rest of the defence forces, the Navy is placing ever bigger importance on international cooperation. Sweden, being the main partner, received considerable praise, but also the increased cooperation with other Baltic Sea States was noted, with Estonia being singled out as a partner of growing importance. Next year’s main focus is obviously the major international exercise Northern Coasts, or NOCO18, which will be hosted by Finland during the autumn.  Turku is the main base of operations, and will also host the main event earlier next year when the Navy celebrate its centennial.

Second after readiness, NOCO is the main focus of the Navy at the moment.

For the Naval Reserve, things are moving on in a steady but unspectacular fashion. The umbrella organisation itself celebrated 20 years in 2017, though several of the member organisations outrank it in seniority. Oldest is the Rannikkosotilaskotiyhdistys, responsible for the soldiers’ canteens of the Navy, coming in at a respectable 99 years.

Rannikkosotilaskotiyhdistys has saved the day for many a young conscripts with a cup of coffee and a munkki (sweet doughnut). Their work for maintaining the morale of the troops should not be underestimated. Source: Own picture

Originally modelled after the German Soldatenheim, the Finnish sotilaskoti have been around since the very early days of independence, and the naval branch got deservedly decorated for their stellar service to the Navy and its servicemen and -women.

In the end, it’s probably good that we haven’t got anything more exciting to tell you about…

Until next year!

A Squadron from the North

Few readers of the blog are likely to have missed the fact that the world’s largest submarine and sole survivor of the Akula (NATO-nickname ‘Typhoon’) class recently paid a visit to the Baltic Sea for the Russian Navy Day parade. TK-208 Dmitriy Donskoy grabbed most of the headlines, but as with all good tricks, it’s when you watch the ball too closely that the magic happens.

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Hieronymus Bosch: “The Conjurer” (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Baltic Sea the submarine completely lacked suitable weaponry, sensors, and quite frankly space to move around. However, the world’s largest surface combatant, Pyotr Velikiy (‘099’), travelled together with the submarine. In addition, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov (‘055’) and destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov (‘626’) both travelled to the Baltic Sea to join in the festivities from the Northern Fleet, with the frigate Admiral Makarov (‘799’) joining from the Black Sea Fleet. These surface combatants stood for the real increase in firepower, and deserve a closer look:

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Note hatches for vertically launched weapons on foredeck. Source: FLVFOT, Flyvevåbnets Taktiske Stab

Pyotr Velikiy: at 251 meter long and 24,300 tons standard displacement, she is a huge vessel by any standard. Often referred to as a battlecruiser, because she packs significant firepower but lacks the armour associated with ‘real’ battleships. The Kirov-class was launched in the 80’s, with the goal of intercepting and destroying the carrier task forces of the US Navy by unleashing a barrage of P-700 Granit missiles. Originally named Yuri Andropov, she is currently the only vessel of the class in operational service. Powered by two KN-3 nuclear reactors supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

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Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Marshal Ustinov: the Slava-class of cruisers are the little sisters (186 m and 9,380 tons) of the Velikiy, and are made to perform the same missions of targeting enemy surface vessels (with the P-500 Bazalt) and functioning as flagships. The Ustinov was launched in 1982, making it seven years older than the Velikiy.

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Source: Brian Burnell via Wikimedia Commons

Vice-Admiral Kulakov: the Udaloy-class are specialised anti-submarine destroyers with secondary air defence and anti-ship capabilities. While the destroyer is significantly smaller (163 m and 6,930 tons) and somewhat older (launched 1980) than the cruisers, she still represents a vessel of the same size as the current flagship of the Baltic Fleet, the air defence destroyer Nastoychivyy.

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Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Makarov: The odd bird out, Makarov not only comes from Sevastopol instead of Murmansk, she is also one of the few really modern warships of the Russian Navy. While the frigate is the lightest of the kvartet (125 m and 3,300 tons), she packs a considerable punch for her size with moderns sensors and weaponry (including the long-range Kalibr-cruise missile), and also feature some amount of signature reduction.

Notable is that Granit, Bazalt, and Kalibr all can come equipped either with conventional or nuclear warheads.

As noted, the current flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet is the Sovremennyy-class destroyer Nastoychivyy, which is the sole operational destroyer of any country permanently stationed in the Baltic Sea. In addition, her sister Bespokoynyy is in reserve/long-term storage. It is hard to overstate the boost the four vessels dispatched brought to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, traditionally one of the smaller fleets in the Soviet/Russian Navy. While all except Makarov are starting to show their age, they brought significant increases to the air defences available. Ustinov feature both the medium ranged Osa-MA and the long-range S-300F Fort surface-to-air missile systems, which are naval derivatives of the 9K33 Osa and the S-300. The Fort employs the original semi-active 5V55 missiles, while the Veliky in turn feature the upgrade S-300FM Fort-M system, which is longer ranged and sporting the newer 48N6E and 48N6E2 missiles. The Veliky also has the medium-range 3K95 Kinzhal (a naval derivative of the 9K330 Tor) and the Kashtan close-in weapons systems with autocannons and short-range missiles (easiest described as 2K22 Tunguska derivatives). The Kinzhal is found on the Kulakov as well. Makarov in turn has the Kashtan for short-range work and the Shtil-1, which in essence consists of Buk-M1 missiles in vertical launch tubes, for medium-range work.

In short: that is a serious amount of different air defence systems, and should have been of note for anyone interesting in drawing A2/AD-bubbles on maps.

The open-water anti-submarine capability was also given a considerable increase by Kulakov and Makarov. Up until now, the main sub-hunting force has been the six coastal ASW-corvettes of the Parchim-class, with open water capability largely resting on the shoulders of the fleet’s sole submarine Vyborg (an early Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class sub from the early 80’s) and the four Steregushchiy-class (light) frigates. This is a relatively small force, considering that the Baltic Sea is home to two of the world’s most modern AIP-submarine forces: the Swedish (Gotland– and Södermanland-classes) and the German (Type 212) submarine squadrons.

The escorts

The vessels arrived well in time before the parade, and the small squadron of Donskoy, Veliky, and the tug Nikolay Chiker was followed closely by both defence forces and media. NATO-vessels escorted the vessels throughout their journey, with the Norwegian Coast Guard shadowing them along the Norwegian coast, and then handing over to HDMS Diana and the Royal Danish Navy. The Danish Defence Forces had earlier stated that the passage of the vessels was business as usual, and that they would dispatch an escort. In hindsight it might not have been quite as usual, as the passage under the Great Belt bridge was escorted by no less than three Diana-class patrol vessels and a single standby vessel positioned just south of the bridge.

After this, the Russians got the attention of, well, everyone. The German Elbe-class tender Main followed them for a while, before the Poles showed up with landing craft/minelayer ORP Gniezno. The Swedes then tried to get the price for most creative solution, by having the Naval Reserve’s Hoburg (ex-ASW hunter Krickan of the Ejdern-class) intercept the formation (granted, there was probably a submarine lurking somewhere for more serious intelligence work). The Estonian’s in turn sent the joint flagship of the border guards and the police force, the Kindral Kurvits.

The Finnish reaction, or rather, the fact that there didn’t seem to be one, caused some people to voice opinions about Finlandisation and the Navy sleeping on their stations. While I am usually quick to argue for clear signalling rather than anything resembling Finlandisation (due to the risk of misinterpretation given our history), I do feel that this is uncalled for. On the contrary: it is painstakingly clear that the appearance of the Donskoy in particular was a PR-stunt, and the considerable buzz caused was quite likely an end in itself. The measured Finnish response was in my opinion a balanced way to acknowledge their existence, without giving them undue attention.

It is perfectly possible to maintain watch over surface vessels in the Gulf of Finland without venturing out to sea (especially in peacetime conditions when no one is targeting or jamming your sensors), and this is particularly true for a vessel with the radar cross section of the Velikiy. So the Finnish Navy seems to have decided that the squadron was not interesting enough to receive an escort.

Note however that the Navy did venture out to sea to get picture of the vessels, and not only that: the Finnish vessel has circled around to a position south of the Russian units (I have gotten confirmation that the pictures are taken from a Finnish naval vessel, and aren’t from Estonian sources). In my opinion, this measured response was likely the best one available. The Navy showed that they knew where the Russian units where, and that they weren’t afraid of maneuvering around in their vicinity to get the best pictures, without showing too much attention (easily interpreted as fear in the face of the Russian show of force).

Exit… Stage Left

The vessels again caused something of a buzz when the question was raised how many of them actually had left the Baltic Sea. According to Russian sources, all Northern Fleet vessels had headed North again, but the pictures used to show this were actually Finnish press photos from the Gulf of Finland. Eventually it became clear that Veliky and Donskoy had left (hat tip to Cornucopia?/Lars Wilderäng), and were indeed northbound. The Kulakov, however, was intercepted by Belgian and British forces while heading south, and no one seems to know where the cruiser Ustinov and the frigate Makarov have went (no one who is ready to tell, that is, I fully expect the defence forces of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea to have proper info on the movement of what might be the strongest vessels currently deployed to our pond). As is well known, the Baltic Fleet has received some significant reinforcements from the Black Sea Fleet earlier as well, and while unlikely, a (semi-)permanent deployment here can’t be ruled out.

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.