During the height of the Cold War, the ’Soviet Trawler’ was an expression in naval circles. Solitary Soviet flagged trawlers had a tendency of appearing on the scene of almost every major NATO naval exercise, and then idly throttling around in the general area until the end of the exercise.
The reality was that these were thinly veiled intelligence gathering vessels, or spy ships as they are generally known. While the Soviet Union could, and did, use regular naval vessels, such as destroyers, to perform the intelligence gathering mission, the converted deep-sea trawler offered several notable benefits. The basic designs were created for extended stays at sea, offering the small crews at least a minimum level of comfort for their sometimes long missions. The vessels also featured large enough hulls to be fitted with the necessary intelligence gathering equipment. Chasing away ‘civilian’ vessels always held a risk of creating bad publicity if something went wrong, and being unarmed they had a far greater choice of ports when it came to bunkering. They were also far cheaper to operate compared to major surface combatants.
Considering all factors, it is no surprise that the trawlers became the instrument of choice for various kinds of operations. Their methods of intelligence gathering included both visual, i.e. guys with cameras and binoculars documenting what the NATO ships were doing, as well as electronic and signal intelligence, i.e. antennas recording radio communications and signals sent out by radars and other systems onboard the ships.
Now, with the highly political joint Finnish-Swedish-US air exercise to be conducted outside of the Finnish coast, suddenly a Panama-flagged, Russian-owned, seismic research ship has arrived in the exercise area.
What then, you might ask, is a seismic research ship?
Seismic research is conducted when ships try to figure out what is under the seabed. Normally, they do this to look for oil and gas deposits, which is the reason why there are quite a number of these highly specialized ships operating around the world. In practice, the ships tow a number of streamers in an orderly pattern behind the boat. These can be up to 10-20 km long, and are equipped with either emitters or receivers. The emitters send out a signal, the echo of which is received by the receivers. Based on the received signal, a computer then processes the data and draws a picture of what is underneath the bottom of the ocean, a bit like the use of sonography by medical professionals.
Why on the earth the vessel suddenly has appeared in these decidedly oil-less waters is a matter of speculation, but noteworthy is the fact that mapping of the seafloor in Finnish waters requires a permit. It is also unclear if the seismic measuring equipment is onboard, or if something else occupies the area normally reserved for 100+ km of seismic streamers.
Due to the popularity of the Tu-95 ”Bear” post, and by popular demand, here comes a write-up over the rest of the planes that have figured over the Baltic Sea and in the news recently, including the Il-20 involved in the near-miss with a civilian airliner.
The Antonov An-12 “Cub” is a heavy transport aircraft designed in the 50’s for transporting general cargo as well as dropping paratroopers. The general layout is very similar to that of the western Lockheed C-130, but the An-12 is quite a bit larger. In spite of its replacement, the Il-76 (see below), entering service already in 1974, the sturdy An-12 have proved to be a durable design, and a large number still flies for both civilian and military users. Civilian aircrafts are regularly seen at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, and are easily told from military transports by the fact that they aren’t fitted with twin 23 mm cannons in their tail. Interestingly enough, the former Antonov Design Bureau/current Antonov State Company is situated in Ukraine.
The Antonov An-26 “Curl” was developed from the earlier An-24 as a medium transport for the Russian Air Force, and was in turn further developed into the An-30 and -32. Over 1,400 An-26’s were produced during an almost 20 year long production run that started in the late 60’s. The aircraft is still in use in many air forces around the world, and while most of the aircrafts are general transports, a number of minor variants are also in use, such as the An-26RTR electronic warfare variant and the fire-fighting An-26P.
The Antonov An-72 “Coaler” is a medium transport easily identified by being one of very aircrafts that have their engines mounted above the wings. This gives the aircraft both the ability to take off from and land on short runways, as well as its nickname Cheburashka, from the big-eared animated character.
The plane is used mainly for general transports, and is operated in some numbers by both civilian airlines and the Russian armed forces. A special version for use in Arctic conditions is named An-74.
The Ilyushin Il-20M (“Coot-A”) is based on the by now largely retired Il-18 airliner. The Il-20 is fitted with an array of different sensors to perform intelligence gathering operations by flying close to enemy territory and “listening” to different signals, e.g. active radars and radio traffic. It is also equipped with cameras and side-looking radar used when searching for ships and ground targets. However, as noted by Swedish defence blogger and air force officer Wiseman, it is not capable of looking out for other aircraft, a deficit that apparently played an important part in a number of near-misses with civilian aircrafts over the Baltic Sea.
Il-76 “Candid”, is the go-to-plane for most of the transport needs of the Russian Armed Forces. The plane is a large four-engined jet-transport, and is certified to operate from rough and unpaved landing strips. The large rear cargo ramp is used for loading/off-loading cargo, as well as for unloading paratroopers and their vehicles either in mid-air or on the ground. Aside from the standard transport versions, the most important variants are the dedicated air-to-air refueling variant named Il-78/Il-78MD and the Beriev A-50 AWACS plane, both of which are also regular visitors over the Baltic Sea.
The Mikoyan MiG-31 (“Foxhound”) is one of the most specialized fighters/interceptors in the world. It is a large aircraft, being as long and high as a World War II-era Boeing B-17, the famous “Flying Fortress”. The reason for this are its missions, it is designed to have the reach (and hence the fuel load) to operate far out over the Arctic and northern edge of the Pacific, where it is to intercept American strategic bombers before they can release their cruise missiles, and to escort own Tu-95MS strategic bombers so that they can safely attack North American targets with their cruise missiles. As such, it is not maneuverable enough to fight modern fighters such as the F-18C Hornet on equal terms, but over the Arctic enemy fighters should be few and far between. The planes currently in service are mainly of the upgraded MiG-31M/BM-versions, but particularly in the eastern parts of the country the older baseline MiG-31 sans suffix is still in service.
The equipment it carries is also tailored for this mission. It has one of the largest radars ever fitted to a fighter, and carries some of the longest ranged missiles produced in the form of the R-33 and the upgraded R-37 (MiG-31M/BM only). The ranges of these are quoted as far above 100 km, potentially over 300 km for the R-37 (to be taken with a grain of salt). The radar also makes it possible for the aircraft to share data with the A-50 airborne command aircraft, or to act as a mini-AWACS itself, by having the navigator/weapons officer of the MiG-31 direct other fighters within range. Of note is that the navigator has very limited vision of the outside world, as his job is mainly to operate different sensors and weapons.
Note for non-aviation geeks: “MiG” is spelled with upper case “M” and “G”, and lower case “i”, as there were two designers leading the original design bureau. This is opposed to more or less all other Soviet/Russian designations, where only the first letter is capitalised.
The Su-24 “Fencer” is a heavy attack/strike aircraft that became operational in the early 70’s. Like the Tu-22M of the same vintage, it features variable geometry wings, being able to sweep the wings back for better high-speed performance. Also in common with its bigger cousin is the fact that it is in use both by the Russian Air Force and by naval air units. The Su-24 can employ a vast range of weapons, ranging from an internal 6-barrelled 23 mm gun to rockets, bombs, and missiles. It can also employ short-ranged air-to-air missiles for self-defence, but in practice it would fare poorly against enemy fighters due to poor maneuverability. The current version in service is the second generation Su-24M, but the plane is starting to show its age, and is about to be replaced by the Su-34 (see below), a process that will take several years.
The Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” marked the start of a family of fighters and fighter-bombers that eventually would dethrone Mikoyan-Gurevich’s design bureau as the leading manufacturer of Soviet/Russian fighters. The plane itself is known for its long range and large weapons load, as well as its extreme maneuverability. The original baseline Su-27 has since been developed into a bewildering range of different one- and two-seater variants, some of which are pure fighters while others have a multi-role tasking that also includes strike missions. The different designations include Su-30/33/34 (see below)/35/37 (prototype only), as well as the Chinese unlicensed copies designated J-11/15/16. The latest version is the Su-35S, and deliveries to the Russian Air Force are ongoing. A naval variant named Su-33 is used onboard the Russian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov.
With its large radar, and a large weapons load including highly-maneuverable heat-seeking missiles, the Su-27 would be a though adversary for most fighter aircrafts currently in service. This is not to say that for example the F-18C Hornets of the Finnish Air Force couldn’t defeat it in combat, but depending on the version of the Su-27/30/35 they could find themselves being the underdog.
The Sukhoi Su-34 “Fullback” (unofficially also “Hellduck”, due to its beak-like nose) is one of the newer acquaintances for the Finnish Quick Reaction Alert, having only started to appear on a regular basis over the Baltic Sea during the last year. Unlike the Su-24 it slowly replaces, the Su-34 is able to meet most fighters on near equal terms, meaning that the need for a dedicated fighter escort is much lower. The sensors and weapons are also markedly more modern. The large cockpit with the pilot and navigator/weapons officer seated side-by-side is very large for an aircraft of its size, making it possible for the crews to move around during long missions, and featurs both a toilette and a small galley.
Of interest is that the pictures released by the Finnish Air Force are taken from slightly below the Russian aircraft, and as such they show the load-out of the planes. The planes seem to have been armed with two Vympel R-73/74 (“AA-11 Archer”) advanced heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, as well as two light free-fall bombs. The later may be inert practice rounds, while the missiles seem to be live rounds. This load-out is not something that would be used in case of war, and is probably exercise related.
The plane has also been associated with the designations Su-27IB and Su-32, as these were given to different prototypes of the Su-34.
The title Tu-22 is a bit misleading, as the original Tu-22 “Blinder” was the Soviet Union’s first supersonic bomber. A late 50’s design, it was featured a sleek design, engines mounted on top of the rear fuselage, a short range due to the inefficiency early jet engines, and an extremely high accident-rate, due to its high landing speed. All these Tu-22B/R/P/K/U have been retired.
The Tu-22M “Backfire” is the successor to this plane, and started life as a completely new design under the designation Tu-26, but as it was easier to “sell” the politicians a new version of an old airplane as opposed to a completely new one, the designation was changed. The Tu-22M entered service in the early 70’s, and also saw combat with the Soviet Air Force in Afghanistan.
Like its predecessor, the Tu-22M was designed to be blistering fast, and the main tactic is to approach a target at low level, relying on its speed to avoid interception by enemy fighters. It then employs cruise missiles to take out individual targets with great accuracy from outside the range of enemy air defences. This kind of attacks were practiced against Sweden during the Eastern of 2013 (the so called “Ryska Påsken”-incident), as well as against Denmark this summer. During the later incident the aircrafts involved actually carried live missiles. The aircraft also has a maritime strike role, being used hunt down enemy ships, and especially aircraft carriers in case of war.
Tu-134 “Crusty” started its life as a short-range passenger plane in the mid 60’s, and was widely used throughout Eastern Europe. A number of the early versions were equipped with glass noses, to aid the navigator when navigating by traditional use of map and basic flight data. A devastating accident in 2011 sped up the plans to retire the aircraft due to safety concerns, meaning that today almost no civilian Tu-134’s are in use. The Russian Air Force, however, uses a number of modified aircraft for training bomber pilots. These have the same radar and instrumentation as the Tu-22M3 and Tu-160, and are easily identified by their long pointed noses. These are sometimes known by the nickname Buratino, from the Pinocchio-like figure created by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. It was a civilian Tu-134 that was hijacked and flown to Helsinki in July 1977.
“Bears will gather rather closely in numbers at good spawning sites.” –Wikipedia-
In yet another ”first”, the Russian Air Force’s Long Distance component (VVS-DA, corresponding to USAF’s Strategic Air Command) have flown Tupolev Tu-95MS (NATO reporting name: “Bear-H”) strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea. The uniqueness of the move was properly summed up by former Swedish Air Force pilot Mikael Grev.
Drar mig till minnes alla UND-genomgångar med “fast de opererar inte i Östersjön så dem kan vi bortse från”.#säkpol#föpol#lärom
“I remember all the intelligence briefings that included ‘but they doesn’t operate over the Baltic Sea, so we can dismiss these’ “
Unlike the Tu-22M3 (“Backfire-M”) of “Russian Eastern”-fame and the Sukhoi Su-34 (“Fullback”, unofficially known as “Hellduck”), which accompanied at least some of the sorties, the Tu-95 does not have any useful wartime mission over the Baltic Sea, with the possible exception of a scenario where the territory of the Baltic States is in Russian hands. In this way, this move is similar to the introduction of the MiG-31(BM?) (”Foxhound”) into the theatre in late October. In the case of the MiG-31, it is a specialized long-range interceptor, mainly meant to intercept enemy long-range bombers and cruise missiles far out in the Arctic and eastern parts of Russia, and is poorly suited for the fighter vs fighter-combat likely to be seen in Europe in case of war.
NATO Baltic Air Policing QRA F-16 jets on 29 OCT scrambled to intercept RU Armed Forces 2x Su-24, 2x MiG-31,1x Su-27 over the Baltic Sea.
With this in mind, we need to make a distinction on three types of flights that the Russian Air Force (and to a lesser extent the Russian Naval Aviation, AV-MF) conducts over the Baltic Sea. Firstly, we have transit flights, i.e. moving a plane from point A to point B, usually between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia. These are more or less peaceful, but the use of transponders and informing civilian air traffic controllers of the flights would be appreciated from a trust-building and air safety point of view.
The second kind of flights are exercises. These are made up of aircraft practicing their wartime missions, and as such can be counted in the category of steps taken in preparations for war. Here we have such famous incidents as the mock attacks on strategic Swedish targets during the Russian Eastern, as well as the mock attack on Danish Bornholm by Tu-22M3’s equipped with live missiles during the Folkemødet political festival, during which several important political figures visited the island. While training for war is the everyday task of armed forces around the world, the manners in which these are conducted make them provocative. There is ample Russian territory over which similar missions could have been flown, with the only difference being in the political message they send.
The third kind is the purely demonstrative flights. When a heavy interceptor or strategic bomber appears over the Baltic Sea, they are operating in an area where they would be very vulnerable in the case of a war. There is no rational reason for sending them through an area filled with civilian aircrafts for a normal navigational exercise, when the better part of e.g. the Arctic Sea is empty. The sole reason is to make a statement, and a rather aggressive one, that is.
The last sentence was the core message of this post.
In this particular case, it seems like the Tu-95’s have been out in numbers over the Baltic Sea three days in a row, further adding to the strength of the message in question. The first rumors appeared on Saturday the 6th of December, which also happens to be the Finnish Independence Day. The following day, Sunday the 7th, Baltic Air Policing intercepted four Tu-95 as well as two Tu-22, which was confirmed by the Latvian defence forces.
Today, Monday the 8th, the largest strike package so far was intercepted by Baltic Air Policing, with Latvian Defence Forces giving today’s tally of intercepted planes as four Su-27 (heavy fighter), four Su-24 (heavy ground-attack plane), four Su-34, two MiG-31, one Tu-22M, one An-12 (heavy transport), one An-26 (medium transport), and four Tu-95. It is unclear which planes flew together whit which, but an earlier tweet indicated a different array of transports, including Il-76 and An-72, which could mean that all planes listed indeed flew together. As far as I have found, the flights on the 6th have not explicitly been confirmed by western authorities, but in a Twitter-discussion the day after, Estonian president Toomas Ilves noted on the rumors of flights two days in a row that “NATO is providing escort service to these Tu-timers”, which seems to indicate that there had indeed been flights both days. Note that the Latvian NBS seems to only report intercept by BAP-flights operating out of Siauliai, Lithuania, and not those flying out of Äimari, Estonia. If the Tu-95’s would have turned around over the Northern parts of the Baltic Sea, they would likely have been escorted only by aircraft operating out of the later base.
Of note is that the first flights on the 6th apparently were followed by an Il-76 (“Candid”) flying with transponders, probably trying (unsuccessfully) to fool Finnish and NATO surveillance into not launching their QRA.
The main sources for the flights are:
6th of December:
Жаркая суббота."Сообразительный" в международных водах,полёт Ту-154 и Ил-76 ВВС до Калининграда и обратно + манёвры Ту-22, Ту-95 в тех краях
In addition, NBS has stated that a three-ship formation of Tu-134 transports have appeared over the Baltic Sea yesterday. This is highly unusal, as the type has largely been retired from service.
Edit 9/12/2014 16:26 (UT +2)
The escorting Il-76 was Il-76TD registration RA-76638, with Tupolev Tu-154 RA-85042 flying the same track sligthly earlier. Both planes flew from Moscow to Kaliningrad, before diverting back to Moscow without landing. Both tracks are found on Flightradar 24/7’s Facebook page.
James Mashiri has (again) written an excellent piece on his blog (so far only in Finnish), this time about the need to see NATO as a part of the larger question of Finnish foreign and security policy, and not as a single choice issue that would have a rather minor effect on how the Finnish Defence Forces should be structured. This he does in the light of the need to modernize the material of the Defence Forces, an issue that is intimately coupled with the reluctance of the current government to grant the funds needed. A Finnish NATO-membership, Mashiri argues, could bring needed savings, by allowing Finland to scale down certain areas. As an unlicensed spin-off, I will look into a few of these areas.
The simple truth is that Finland’s wars are won or lost by the ground forces. The air force and navy are important supporting arms, but neither can defend Finnish territory alone. Finland has also maintained a rather traditional force structure, with a large reserve consisting largely of (light) infantry. The artillery park is large, and built around a core of towed pieces and mortars, coupled with self-propelled guns in the form of 2S1 Gvozdika/122 PSH 74 and 2S5 Giatsint-S/152 TELAK 91 and multiple rocket launchers. The armoured component is relatively weak, but is strengthened through the recent purchase of modern (used) Dutch Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks. However, a large number of older vehicles, such as the BMP-2 is still found in the organization. These will either have to be modified or replaced in the near future.
One of the big issues for the army has been the lack of training, especially when it comes to the reserves. Another major headache has been the replacement of anti-personnel mines, as Finland signed the Ottawa Treaty (Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention) in 2011. A number of solutions to this has been presented, including the use of attack helicopters, cluster munition, MLRS (22 ex-Dutch M270 MLRS/298 RSRAKH 06 were purchased in 2007), but all are either expensive, vulnerable, under criticism from human rights groups, or a combination of the above. In addition to these high profile issues, a number of older systems are on the verge of obsolescence, and will need to be replaced during the coming decades.
The Army is perhaps the branch that would see the least amount of change in case of a NATO-membership. Still, the possibility to coordinate the defences of the northern flank in particular with Norway, Sweden (in case of a Swedish membership) and possibly other countries would be a huge boost. Also, the addition of even a small number of e.g. foreign armoured or special forces units could potentially be a game changer.
The Finnish Navy will need to discharge a number of its older ship classes during the coming years, including such important assets as the Rauma-class FAC’s and the heavy mineships. The coming procurement of the new support ship, MTA 2020, to replace these two classes has already been discussed on this blog to some length. Questions have been raised whether too many functions are being crammed into a single platform, but so far it is too early to tell.
It is also noteworthy that a large number of coastal units are included in the navy, with e.g. the truck based RBS15 Mk3/MTO-85M anti-ship missiles being a system that will not be cheap to replace. Also, the question of over the horizon targeting (OTOH) for long-range anti-ship missiles is not solved. UAV’s might provide the answer to this, but so far no funding has been allocated.
What then could the changes be for the Finnish Navy, if we opted (and were accepted) to join NATO?
Truth be told, a look at the geography of the Baltic Sea, coupled with the number of combat vessels in the navy gives away the fact that we already are counting on the support of a number of states around the Baltic Sea (Sweden in particular) in the case of a conflict. The relatively small number of combat vessels (8 fast attack craft, 2 mine ships) means that it is only possible to maintain local naval supremacy in the Baltic Sea, and the range and endurance of the FAC’s (500 NM and 5 days respectively of the Hamina) dictates that this place would be rather close to home. In other words: the Finnish Navy should be able to make certain that the NW corner of the Baltic Sea is safe for friendly merchant shipping, but from there on out to the North Sea, we would have to rely on friendly states (including at least Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and to a lesser extent, Germany and Poland).
The Finnish navy is also currently lacking submarines, as well as having only a limited ASW-capability, both of which could be provided by the abovementioned countries in the case of a NATO-membership. The same can be said to a lesser extent about e.g. the lack of OTOH-capability, as well as general operational reconnaissance assets.
It would not be unfair to say that the Navy is already trimmed to deliver what NATO would expect from us in the case of an armed conflict. The one interesting option where I believe savings might be found is the expeditionary ship(s) of the Navy. Finland is expected to participate in international missions, meaning we need to have at least a single ship that is equipped for sustained operations on the high seas in warm (tropical) climates. This could potentially be a pooled OPV vessel, e.g. in cooperation with Sweden and/or other NATO-members. However, as the Finnish Navy also regularly sails on goodwill visits and training cruises, we would in any case have the need for a training ship equipped to handle warmer climates and prolonged journeys, meaning that the potential saving are probably not as large as they initially seem. For my readers who understand Swedish, I can recommend the blogger Krigsmakten who has a post about the potential benefits of a dedicated OPV as opposed to giving it as a secondary mission to a “regular” vessel.
The Air Force
After Finland finally (also officially) started to have an air force with both air to air and air to ground capability, the biggest problem in case of an air war would probably be the lack of strategic depth. Russian long-range surface-to-air missiles covers more or less the whole country, making all air operations staged from bases in Finland extremely dangerous.
Correspondingly, the offensive weapons carried by modern tactical aircraft, such as the F-18C Hornet of the Finnish Air Force, makes it possible to support own forces from far greater range than what has been the case (so called “stand-off weapons”), but to get maximum range out of these, a certain altitude is usually required. Being able to group Finnish Air Force units in the northern half of Sweden during wartime would significantly increase both the effectiveness and survivability of our own planes, while also simplifying the integration of both Finnish and Swedish fighters into a single multinational force during wartime. This possible synergy would obviously be even greater if both air forces were equipped with the same aircraft, the JAS 39E/F Gripen being the obvious candidate.
A large saving would also come from the use of NATO’s (and especially the USAF/USN’s) considerable number of force multipliers, such as AWACS/AEW, tanker support, EW and strategic reconnaissance assets.
An even more radical step would be to not replace the Hornet, and instead rely on other countries for fast jet support. This move would probably be hugely unpopular with a number of NATO-countries, but the lack of strategic depth and relatively large ground component of the Finnish Defence Forces could be brought up to defend this move.