Air and Sea Traffic in the Gulf of Finland 6 October

It seems evident that 6 October was a day of heavy Russian military air traffic in the Gulf of Finland, reminiscent of certain episodes during the second half of 2014. Unfortunately, another episode also reminded of 2014, in that the Russians twice intruded on Finnish airspace. The first intruder was a single Su-27P, ‘red 42’ (RF-92414), which briefly entered Finnish airspace over the sea south of Porvoo 16:43 local time. It was intercepted by Finnish QRA, which duly photographed the armed Russian fighter.

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The first intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

The Russians had time to deny this incident, before the next intrusion took place at exactly the same place a few hours later. Another Su-27P in the ‘Red 4x’ sequence flew the same route inside Finnish airspace, and was documented by Finnish QRA at 21:33.

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The second intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

Both aircraft carry a mix of short-range highly manoeuvrable R-73 IR-missiles, mid-range R-27T IR-missiles, as well as long-range R-27ER semi-active radar-seeking missiles. This varied load-out is nothing new, and e.g. on this photo taken by US fighters during the Cold War the same missiles (though in older versions) are found on the same stations.

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Su-27 with same variety of missiles, photographed in 1988. Source: US DoD

In theory the mix gives the Su-27 and unprecedented ability to target different airborne targets near and far, though in reality the different versions of the R-27 are starting to show their age. The lack of an active radar seeker on the R-27ER is also a significant handicap.

As noted, both intrusions took place at the same location, outside of Porvoo. A map released by the Finnish Border Guards leave little doubt that the intrusions were intentional, as both fighters flew the same track with a few hours in between. Both fighters entered Finnish airspace flying straight towards Kallbådagrund lighthouse (and in the general direction of Helsinki), and then turning parallel to the border just inside of it, before dashing out at the same location.

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The flight path of the first intruder in red, the track of the second intruder in blue, and the extent of Finnish airspace in green. Source: Rajavartiolaitos

Notable is that while earlier intrusions have often been by cargo planes, and have often been blamed on the weather (in the cases where the Russians have conceded that they indeed have intruded on Finnish airspace), the weather during 6 October was good, with no reason to deviate. It is extremely rare that Russia have made these ‘visits’ with fighters, and the use of armed fighters to send a message like this is a step up in rhetoric.

An interesting question is related to the general state of readiness for the Finnish fighters. The closest permanent QRA is stationed at Kuopio-Rissala airbase in the central parts of Finland, from where the flight time would seem prohibitively long (especially as there has been no reports of supersonic flights by the Finnish Air Force).

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A pair of armed F/A-18C Hornets parked at Kuopio-Rissala airport earlier this year. Source: own picture

The air force naturally refuses to give any details regarding the alert level and where the fighters that intercepted the Russian air traffic were based. During 2014 it was acknowledged that the air force temporarily based Hornets on civilian air fields in the southern parts of the country, including Helsinki-Vantaa international airport, to reduce intercept times. Finnish MoD Jussi Niinistö praised the reaction times of the Hornets, and noted that in addition to the two intruding Su-27P’s an unspecified number (‘several’) of identification flights were made. He also noted that this took place on the same day that Finland signed the bilateral defence cooperation deal with the US, and that the Russian behavior did not affect this in any way. It seems likely that the Finnish Air Force had some kind of prior knowledge, or that they were able to change their stance and react very quickly to the sudden increase in air traffic.

The Finnish authorities have asked the Russian ambassador to explain the intrusions.

In yet another twist, Estonian airspace was intruded upon a couple of hours after the second Porvoo-incident.

The QRA duty for the Estonian airspace is currently handled by a detachment of German Eurofighters, which, like their Finnish colleagues, had flown a number of identification flights during 6 October. If the intruder was photographed is not yet known. The Eurofighters currently operating out of Ämari air base are five aircraft from TaktLwG 74, homebased in Neuburg. The raw performance of the Eurofighter when it comes to climb rate and acceleration makes it right at home when it comes to these kinds of intercepts, and according to open sources the German fighters reached 848 knots (~1.3 Mach) during their missions, the highest speed noted in any intercept over the Gulf of Finland during 6 October.

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An intercept from last month where German Eurofighters identified a Russian Su-27. Note drop tanks and air-to-air missiles on Eurofighter, as well as lighter missile load on Su-27 compared to what was carried this time. Source: Bundeswehr

Another part of the puzzle came on 7 October, when Estonian sources claimed that the ro-ro vessel Ambal then in transit was carrying Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The vessel is operated by Anrusstrans, which sports a small and varied fleet of cargo vessels and tugs. The vessel arrived in Baltiysk on the evening of 7 October. Crucially, she had been transiting the Gulf of Finland during 6 October, leading some to speculate that the Russian fighters had been escorting her. It is possible that the air and sea traffic was part of an exercise aimed at practising how to transfer reinforcements to Kaliningrad, an operation which would require air superiority over the Gulf of Finland and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea during the transit, though a traditional escort mission where fighters would follow a lumbering merchantman at (relatively) close range seems unlikely. It is also unclear if the Iskanders are the only units moved to the exclave during the last days, or if other units have been transferred as well.

Of further interest is the fact that on 5 October it was reported that two Buyan-M class corvettes that had transited the Bosphorus seemingly heading towards Syria, instead could be heading for the Baltic Sea. The introduction of these highly capable corvettes armed with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Baltic Sea would add significant fire power to the Russian Baltic Fleet.

 

An outstretched hand

Yesterday the news spread that the largest reservist organization in Finland, Reserviläisliitto, offered to help Sweden re-build their Army again. This has caused a number of different reactions, ranging from surprise to outright glee.
To begin with, a short recap of what Mikko Savola actually said: Sweden made huge cuts in their defense during the post-Cold War years, and the invasion of Crimea caught them with their “pants down”. Now they are urgently looking for ways to rebuild “the kind of abilities needed to fight a conventional war”.

Swedish soldiers of the 191. Mechanised Battalion moving a heavy mortar during exercise Vintersol 2016 held in northern Sweden last winter. Source: Jesper Sundström/Försvarsmakten

This include a return to general conscription, which last week’s report on how to solve the personnel question advocated. The proposal is now being discussed in the higher echelons of Swedish politics. However, rebuilding dismantled capabilities will take years, and as such the situation is “somewhat along the same lines” as when Estonia had to rebuild their defense forces from scratch following their restoration of independence.
In this work, Finnish reservists played an important part by providing instructors and consultants. Savola believes that there is “ample know-how” amongst the Finnish reserve that would benefit the Swedish Defense Forces, as well as volunteers for similar training and consulting arrangements that were set up in Estonia.

Savola’s proposal is no doubt made with the best of intentions, with the goal of strengthening general security in the Nordic region within the framework of Finnish-Swedish defense cooperation. Unfortunately, the basic premises are wrong.

To begin with, Sweden is not going back to general conscription. The report in question isn’t ready yet, and certainly wasn’t published last week. The most likely outcome seems to be a mixed system similar to that of Norway. In any case, the professional Swedish Army is here to stay.

Finnish reservists taking part in a voluntary training day at their local firing range. Source: own picture

Neither has the Swedish Army lost their focus on how to fight a conventional war, the armed forces having placed ever greater focus on national defense especially since the drawdown in Afghanistan started. Currently it is a competent force, though small and lacking in key support functions. This, however, will not be solved by anything else than the Swedish government providing additional funds to the defense budget.

I wholeheartedly agree that further deepening of cooperation is a great way of strengthening both our countries’ defense forces through the exchange of ideas and experiences as well as increased interoperability. Including the active reservists of the Finnish Defense Forces and the Swedish Home Guard in these kinds of exchanges would also be most welcome. The proposal by Savola is however unsuitable to the current situation, mainly due to the fact that there seems to be a basic misunderstanding regarding the current and future state of the Swedish Army.

Bear’s over the Baltic

“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.

“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.

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:

7th of December:

8th of December:

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.

The track of the two “escorts” flying with transponders on. Circled is the Tu-154, with the Il-76 on the same track roughly at the same level as Gotland’s northern tip. Source: Flightradar 24/7