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.

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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