Guest Post: A Picture in Moscow

The following post was originally posted by Swedish blogger Jägarchefen on his excellent blog. As the topic is highly relevant for but rarely discussed here in Finland, I asked for and got permission to translate it. The below translation is not a word for word one, but instead I have included some explanatory comments on issues which are assumed to be known to Swedish readers but which might not be immediately obvious to foreigners, as well as diving deeper into how this all affects Finland.

Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Chief of the General Staff, held a speech at the annual security conference in Moscow 26 to 27 April. The speech included how the actions and preparations of NATO aimed at providing the basis for a rapid surge of reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank would affect Russian security. In one of the pictures he showed both Swedish and Finnish territory were marked as part of NATO’s preparatory actions. This indicates that Russia sees Finnish and Swedish territory as an extension of NATO territory, though whether they are seen as an integrated part is better left unsaid. What is clear is that in the Russian strategic military doctrine from 2014 and in the national security strategy from 2015 NATO is described as a threat to Russian security.

Regarding Sweden this isn’t news. Based on a number of books published during the last two decades it is clear that the Soviet Union during the better part of the Cold War regarded Sweden as an unofficial NATO member, making the current Russian view of Sweden as a part of NATO less than surprising. In addition to the historical case, this is also based on Sweden being one of five states with the possibility of deeper cooperation (the famous ‘Gold Card’) and the recently signed Host Nation Support Agreement.

More surprising is the view that Finland would constitute an extension of NATO. Granted, Finland, like Sweden, has signed the HNS agreement and received the ‘Gold Card’, but Finland and Russia still make occasional statement about the special relationship that prevail between the countries. From that point of view, the statement by the Russian Chief of Staff is somewhat out of sync, as it indirectly labels Finland as a threat. It is also interesting to see the raging debate about the nature of Finnish support in case of a conflict in the region in context with Gerasimov’s picture.

What then did the picture show? It showed four geographical areas, as well as a possible continuous  support or staging area. On Swedish territory, it appeared to show Varberg or Halmstad port as a possible staging ground for naval assets. On the Swedish east coast it appeared to show the port of Gävle as a staging ground for naval assets. It also seemed to indicate Sundsvall as a supporting area for air operations (in other words Midlanda airport). Finally, on Finnish territory it seemed to show Vasa as a supporting area for naval assets and Kauhava as a supporting area for air operations. The continuous supporting/staging area seemingly consisting of Gävle – Sundsvall – Vasa – Kauhava.

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Map courtesy of Jägarchefen

To some extent this is strategic signalling. The Russian leadership is showing their unhappiness with the current Swedish and Finnish defence cooperation with NATO, and this could be a way of trying to pressure Finland and Sweden diminish or even stop the cooperation. Another alternative is that Russia is trying to send a message: “We know what you are preparing and we want you to know that”. The aim then would be to make preparations and/or cooperation more difficult.

Starting with the Swedish west coast, it is clear that it is vital for Sweden in peace as well as in war. This comes both from its role in the influx of crucial goods, as well as from its use as the gateway for any reinforcements brought in from the west. The main focus has been on the port of Gothenburg, which in peacetime handles almost 30% of Swedish imports, is ice-free year-round, and has a significant rail network enabling efficient distribution of goods to other parts of Sweden. One possibility is obviously that the location of the marker is wrong, and that the real intention was to highlight Gothenburg and not Varberg or Halmstad. However, the other possibility is that the military units would stay out of the crowded port, and instead choose a less busy civilian port for bringing in reinforcements and basing naval vessels.

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Sundsvall/Midlanda airport. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Felix Wikström

Even more interesting is Gävle and the Sundsvall – Vasa – Kauhava area. The reasoning behind Gävle might be its use as the port of departure for the forward-deployed US Marine Corps Brigade that is currently found in the caves of Trøndelag, in central Norway. From Gävle, the unit could then be shipped out to the Baltic states in case of a grave security crises. Gävle could also be used as a base for naval units from Finland and/or NATO countries for operations in the northern Baltic Sea. The use of Midlanda (Sundsvall) airport likely refers to its use as a base for fighter and strike aircraft. In case of transport of personnel the US forces would likely directly use the airports in Trøndelag instead. Another possibility is that the base would be used to provide strategic depth for Finnish fighters.

The most curious aspect is Vasa as a naval base or staging area, as well as Kauhava as a base for airborne assets. It is possible that Vasa would be part of a protected staging area for naval vessels operating in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea as well as in the Gulf of Finland. Notably however, no airports in southern or central parts of Sweden, nor the naval base in Karlskrona, are included in the picture. In the by now rather well-known RAND study of how a Russian attack on the Baltics could look, the use of air bases in central Sweden is highlighted as being of crucial importance to NATO.

It could be that Russia feels it has the ability to interfere with operations in southern and central Sweden to the extent that the area is not seen as a threat in case NATO would base forces there. In this case Gerasimov’s picture would indicate that the marked areas would not be as affected by the Russian actions, and as such would be more of a threat.

This makes the transfer of two Buyan-M class corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet to the Baltic Fleet during the autumn of 2016 especially interesting, as it provides the opportunity for Russia to target the Swedish west coast with Kalibr long-range cruise missiles without these overflying the territory of other nations, which would have been the case if the missiles would have been fired from the North Fleet.

 

Added to this the Swedish broadcasting corporation’s radio earlier this year reported that some unknown entity seems to try and map out people working for the regional council in Jämtland, including those that play a role in upholding comprehensive security in the region. There are no information on the situation in Västernorrland county, but it can be assumed to be similar, as these two constitute a continuous geographical area of operations due to the forward-deployed storages in Trøndelag.

These two counties, together making up the region of Mellersta Norrland (literally ‘Middle Norrland’), seems to be an area of great military strategic interest for Russia, indirectly making them an area of strategic military interest for Sweden as well. This is in addition to the five areas identified earlier, which include:

  • Southern Scania, which controls the waterways between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea
  • Gotland, which could be employed as a basing area for long-range weapon systems
  • Gothenburg/the west coast, discussed above
  • Stockholm, the national capital
  • Northern Norrland, as a transit area for flanking operations during any battle between Norwegian and Russian forces

With a sixth area added to these, it is clear that the Swedish Defence Forces lacks the quantity needed to defend all of these at the same time.

It should be noted that the highlighting of Mellersta Norrland is in line with earlier posts on Jägarchefen’s blog, where during the last two year several indications have been reported which point to Mellersta Norrland being strategically more important that generally assumed. This can now be seen as confirmed by the Russian general staff.

Own comments:

For Finland, the situation is somewhat similar. Traditionally, the main strategic areas have been identified as the southern parts of the country, where the capital of Helsinki and the major cities of Turku and Tampere are found, as well as the northern parts of the country which would be important in case of a major conflict where Finnish territory could be used for flanking maneuvers in the battles for Murmansk and northern Norway. A third possible axis of attack would be the Kajaani – Oulu axis, which was attempted in the Winter War as a way of cutting Finland in half.

Southern Ostrobothnia has traditionally not been seen as a primary target. Kauhava has a long history as an air force base, and would likely be used for dispersed basing in case of war. From a NATO point of view, its value is more limited, as bases in northern Sweden would likely be a better choice for basing fighters due to the strategic depth they offer, while for air transport several other civilian airports hold similar facilities and at least equal road and rail connections (and in some cases local ports can be used as a complement).

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Swedish corvette HSwMS Sundsvall (K24) entering the civilian port of Kokkola during a joint exercise in 2010. Source: Own picture

 

One possibility is that the designation of Vasa as a port of interest does portray a more general concept of using civilian ports as naval bases. Finland has a notoriously high number of ports along the coast, and the Ostrobothnian shore is no exception. While no ‘true’ naval bases are found in the area, there are a number of differently sized ports which could be used for refuelling and replenishment, in effect a dispersed basing concept for naval vessels. From the relative protection of the Gulf of Bothnia the vessels could then sortie out to strike against enemy movements in the northern Baltic Sea, before again withdrawing back to safety.

The conclusions drawn by Jägarchefen are the following:

  1. As Russia sees NATO as a threat to their national security, and as they see Finnish and Swedish territory as being potential areas supporting NATO operations, Russia does see Finland and Sweden as well as threats to their security. This has (or rather, should have) a significant impact on the discussions on Finland’s role in case of war in the Baltics.
  2. This has now been clearly communicated at the highest military level, making it also a political signal as well to Finland and Sweden.
  3. Mellersta Norrland must be seen as an area of strategic military importance. In Finland, this goes for Southern Ostrobothnia as well.
  4. This must lead to a discussion at the political level about the importance of this area. Currently, the area feature more or less the same security vacuum Gotland enjoyed before the island became home for permanently stationed troops again. While Finland stresses that peacetime garrisons should not be seen as indicative of where any given unit would fight, it is very much open (as it should be) if current defence planning recognises the importance of this area, and how e.g. the Local Voluntary Units (Maakuntajoukot) tasked with defending the area has been briefed and equipped to meet this increased threat level.

Have a good one! // Jägarchefen

Review: Tornio ’44

The sheer scope of the Second World War means that there is a vast number of less-known operations. Amongst these, the amphibious landing and following battle between the Finnish and German forces in the Tornio area in the autumn of 1944 is amongst the most obscure. The battle was the single most important part of the so called Lapland War, during which Finnish forces drove out the German units from Finnish territory in accordance with the requirements of the Finnish-Soviet armistice signed during the late summer of that year.

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The iconic picture of two Finnish soldiers with their Panzerschreck along the Kemi-Tornio road. Source: SA-Kuva

The battle wasn’t particularly large, none of the individual skirmishes it was made up of numbered more than a few battalions, and was characterised by poor intelligence, a lack of communication, and the general confusion which followed these. The close proximity to the (neutral) Swedish border and the fact that the two sides up until recently had been brothers in arms and good friends also added to the flavour.

A Finnish-Swedish company called Mikugames has created a boardgame to represent the battle. The hex-and-counter style game covers the whole battle from 1 to 8 of October, with the map stretching from Ajos up to Ylivojakkala. The counters are company-sized units, the being printed on both sides, with the second side representing the unit at half-strength.

At first glance, the game looks like your standard run-of-the-mill wargame, with attack factors being summed and ratios being compared, before the dice resolve the outcome. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that this is only partly correct, and that the game in fact feature a number of novel approaches to capture the unique nature of the Tornio campaign. While ‘flavour’ has a tendency to mean ‘complexity’ in many wargames, in Tornio ’44 the opposite is in fact true, and they instead make the game highly suitable for beginners. This is mainly due to two factors: the pace at which the battle develops, and the fact that this was almost exclusively an infantry affair.

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A German counterattack from the direction of Kemi has managed to recapture parts of Tornio, including the vital supply depot in ‘Little Berlin’. Visible is the sole German tank company, 2. Panzer-Abteilung 211.

When the battle kicks off, very few units are actually on the map, meaning that the first few turns are rather straightforward and let the players build confidence and become familiar with the sequence of play. After this, the scope of the game gradually increases as more Finnish reinforcements are landed and the German command dispatches more units to the area.

The gameplay itself boil down to a few simple mechanics. Each unit is either motorised or not, which affect the cost of it moving through different kinds of terrain. For the combat value, each unit has an attack and a defence value, reflecting that defence is usually stronger than attack. For the supporting units (i.e. artillery and mortars), they instead get a range and support value (representing how hard they hit), as well as a close-defence value, representing how good they are at defending themselves if they get attacked. While all units are correct according to the historical order of battle, you don’t have to worry about whether you are commanding a Waffen-SS mountain company, a bunch of Finnish light tanks, or a second-rate Ersatz unit if you don’t like. For practical purposes, the only differences actually making a difference is their different mobility and combat values. The few exceptions to this rule are the special abilities of engineers to support river crossings (and blow bridges in the case of the Germans), as well as some simple optional rules dealing with antitank and antiaircraft units.

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The engineers of the Gebirgsjäger-Brigade 139’s 17. company tries to blow the large combined rail and road bridge over the Kemijoki river.

Where the game really shines is in the asymmetric nature of the fighting. To reflect the differing goals of the Finnish and German forces, a single point-track is used, where the Finnish player score their victory points, and the German player tries to subtract the Finnish points. The Finnish player gains their points by capturing key areas, inflicting losses to the Germans (preferably after encircling them in a motti), and for any Finnish units exiting the map along the roads heading north. Reversely, the German player subtracts points by recapturing objectives, destroying the bridges over Torniojoki and Kemijoki rivers (with more points being awarded the longer they can wait before blowing the charges), and for any units exiting the board northward during the last two turns.

This creates a set of extremely interesting tactical dilemmas. How long will the German player try and maintain control of the Kemijoki bridge before retreating northwards? The German player will initially have more troops on the board, with the initiative slowly transferring to the Finnish player, so trying to score a few early victories might be tempting. However, as all German losses are scored, being overly aggressive will soon come back to haunt the point-track. The Finnish player in turn has a major choice in deciding whether the troops will land in Kemi (as per the original plan), on Ajos, or at Röyttä south of Tornio (where the landing historically happened). Of these, Kemi is the most centrally located, followed by Ajos, and then Röyttä. This is turn influences how quickly the German command in Lapland reacts to the threat, with the German forces arriving significantly faster if the first two landing spots are used. The Finnish player can thereby determine the pace of the game by controlling the alert level. This can also be changed mid-game, by diverting some of the later waves of Finnish landings to a landing spot with a higher alert level.

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Finnish troops in the Kemi skijumping hill watches helplessly as the German troops blow the Kemijoki bridge in the distance, creating an impressive pillar of smoke. Source: SA-kuva

These differing objectives and the steady stream of troops trickling in from different corners of the battlefield create a surprisingly gripping game. There never seem to be quite enough troops to make that last decisive move, and reinforcements can suddenly alter the force balance on a certain part of the battlefield, while a sudden change in weather might delay the Finnish reinforcements for a crucial turn.

The largest single issue I have with the game is probably that in some places the wording of the manual isn’t completely clear, with key words being used before they have been explained. The map is nicely done, but isn’t mounted and feature a number of prominent folds which require some pressure to straighten out. Otherwise the cardboard counters risk sliding around. However, this is usually the case with games at this price point, and an unmounted rolled map (delivered in a tube) can be bought from the publisher for a reasonable price.

Tornio ’44 is highly recommended to anyone interested in the northern front of World War II or looking for a suitable first game to try hex-and-counter wargaming. While designed for two players, it does work well for single-player as well (with the player playing both sides), with only some minor features being absent. If boardgames doesn’t interest you, but the conflict itself does (and you read Finnish or Swedish), Mika Kulju’s book on the battle is probably the authoritative work on it, and is well worth a read.

Kevyen osaston polkupyöriä lastataan laivaan Tornioon vietäväksi.
The Finnish Light Detachment (Kevyt osasto) load their bicycles onto a Finnish steamer in the port of Toppila, Oulu. Ironically, next to Toppila is the Alppila district, named after the large depot the German mountain troops created there. No ‘real’ landing tonnage was available, and the Finnish troops were ferried by civilian merchant vessels. Source: SA-kuva

TKRB – Coastal Defense in Swedish

In a surprise move, Sweden today announced that they will reintroduce truck-based coastal defense batteries equipped with the Saab RBS15 heavy-anti ship missile. This is not a new system for Sweden, which operated exactly such a unit for five years between 1995 and 2000. This was then rapidly disbanded in the general drawdown of the Swedish Defense Forces. The decision was widely criticised, and has since come to be seen as a major mistake (amongst several that took place between 2000 and 2009). Crucially, the equipment was not stored for a possible reactivation, but dispersed without any kind of central plan. Some of the trucks were sold on the civilian market, some were used by Saab, FMV, or the defense forces themselves.

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The Finnish truck-based launcher mounting the MTO 85M. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

The original TKRB (Swe. Tung kustrobot, literally ‘Heavy coastal missile’) was the RBS-15KA based on the baseline RBS 15, later referred to as Mk I. The current version in Swedish naval use is the updated Mk II, which also roughly corresponds to the Finnish MTO 85M. This is starting to show its age, and in the Finnish Navy it is to be replaced in both vessel- and coastal-based roles in the time span of 2018 to 2025. A number of countries around the Baltic Sea already operate the upgraded Mk III, which can be considered a completely new weapon for most intents and purposes.

The interesting part is that Sweden at very short notice has decided to introduce a new(ish) weapon system with a very limited operational life span of just five to ten years, after which it will have to be replaced with a new missile. Granted, this is a low-cost solution, with the weapons themselves already found in the inventory and the drawings for the truck-mount probably based on the original implementation. Still, it has been known for years that this system would significantly increase the deterrence factor, and nothing has happened until now.

The fact that this significantly heightens the Swedish Defense Forces ability to defend their home waters is great news for Finland as well, as this is one place where our supply lines would be vulnerable to intercept without the Finnish Navy or Air Force being able to do something. However, this also causes a very uncomfortable question to pop up again:

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

The English Grave

In Finland (and Sweden) All Saint’s Day is celebrated on the first Saturday in November each year. While sharing its roots with Halloween, it is a markedly different holiday, still retaining its Christian importance and celebrated mainly by remembering the deceased by lighting candles at the graves of relatives. One of the graves in Kokkola, however, has a very different story.

When the (first) Crimean War broke out in 1854, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. As such, a joint British-French squadron was quickly sent to the Baltic Sea to open up a second front by conducting raiding. Receiving basing rights from neutral Sweden, they quickly overran the Russian fortifications in Åland (giving the war its Finnish name: the ‘Åland War’), before starting to methodically raid Finnish ports. The weak defenses made it possible for the raiders to simply send detachments ashore and inform the local population that their merchant ships would be sunk and their stores burnt, after which this was carried out.

While this kind of warfighting certainly was fit for a gentleman and resulted in very little bloodshed, it did cause significant economic damages to the coastal communities hit, many of which relied heavily on foreign trade using ships owned and crewed by local merchants.

In Kokkola, the squadron was first sighted when it passed by in the early summer of 1854. The ships were heading north, and stayed well clear of the rocky shores of the city. News from the northern parts of Ostrobothnia soon confirmed that the Englishmen were making short work of any port they entered, and that they had turned around and were heading south, slowly pillaging their way home again.

The leading merchant families of the city did not look happily upon the prospects of having the port, including considerable stocks of tar, burnt. It also seems like a feeling of being treated unjustly had spread throughout the town. Much of the trade from Kokkola was with English ports, and many ships from the town had been interned with their crews being held in poor conditions in the UK. This was hard for the local inhabitants to accept, that their sons, fathers, and husbands were being held as prisoners of war by their trading partners, due to some unrelated quarrel in the Black Sea!

Regardless of the exact reasoning, the citizens of Kokkola decided to fight back, and sent a message to the Russian authorities that they were forming a militia, and now requested support from the Russian army. The Russian forces in the area were weak and spread out, but a small number of soldiers and a few light guns were sent to Kokkola.

On the 7 June, HMS Odin and HMS Vulture were again sighted outside of the city. The large vessels held considerable firepower compared to what the defenders could muster, but due to the cluttered archipelago, they were unable to find the sea lane leading into the port, meaning they had to be anchored outside of firing range. Instead, a number of launches were sent in, the first of which carried a delegation under parliamentary flag, which came ashore with the usual set of demands. They were greeted by the city mayor and the leading merchant, who refused to accept the British terms. The officers then got back to their boat, and everyone prepared for battle.

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The captured launch today in the English Park in Kokkola. Locally it is often said to be the only Royal Navy vessel still in ‘enemy’ hands, a notion that is false. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Jukka Kolppanen
The skirmish which followed was decidedly one-sided. The Finns had built a fake wall between some of the warehouses at the waterfront, and when the British vessels came close enough, this fell down and a hail of gunfire met the approaching boats. Out in the open, the British soldiers started to suffer losses, and eventually had to pull back before reaching shore. While retreating, one of the vessels got stuck on a rock, and was forced to surrender to the Finnish forces. The sole loss on the Finnish-Russian side was a dead horse and some material damage. It is my understanding that the British casualties came from both the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Some were on the boats retrieved by the steam frigates, and at least one of the POW’s later died in captivity. But some found their final resting place in Kokkola.

Next to one of the rear gates in the local cemetery today a tall stone can be found. Local stories tell that the British Admiralty still pay a small annual sum for the upkeep of the grave, though I am not certain if that claim would survive a closer inspection. The stone feature a long text in golden letters, written in Swedish, with the last part in verse.

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Here rests nine of the Englishmen fallen in battle at Halkokari and Beckbruket on the 7 June 1854. Namely

NATHANAEL MORPHY, Officer

ROBERT THUELL, WILLIAM COLLINS

GEORGE WILSON, WILLIAM WEDGE

JAMES WESTAKE, WALTER CRUB

ROBERT RUNDELL, JAMES HIGGINS

Pray for the fallen! Humans they were

Friend or foe, is not asked here

Away from the battle and alarm they went

A foreign land carved them a memorial

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.

 

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.

The Finnish Investigation

One of last week’s major stories was the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) presenting their ‘interim results’, again confirming what has been seen as the most likely explanation since the immediate aftermath of the 2014 tragedy: that MH17 was brought down by a Russian-supplied Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile. I won’t discuss the details here, as they have been given in a number of different forums, including by Bellingcat as well the earlier investigative report and now the JIT. Suffice to say, the amount of evidence found in both open and non-open source has reached such levels that the question of whether a Russian supplied Buk shot down MH17 can now be considered a litmus test for whether you are under the influence of Russian propaganda or not.

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Finnish Buk-M1 TELAR with missiles mounted. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Finnish Defence Forces
For Finland, the interesting part came when Dutch newspaper Telegraaf broke the story that Finland had provided data and performed secret tests on our Buk-missiles, which are of the same M1-version as the TELAR used for downing MH17. To begin with, this ‘important contribution’ by the Finnish authorities was cheered by Finnish media (#Suomimainittu), but the party was cut short by the announcement that JIT had in fact not been allowed by Finnish authorities to see the evidence. This in turn caused a minor uproar that was rapidly shaping into a political storm when the Finnish President called a press conference on the issue.

But first, let’s rewind to how the by now infamous SAM-system ended up in Finland. By the end of the Cold War, the Soviet economy was in a very poor shape. This was also seen on the clearing accounts which formed the basis for Finnish-Soviet trade. Under this system, anything exported by Finland was ‘cleared’ from the account when items to a corresponding value were imported by Finland from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Soviet balance sheet was squarely in the red, i.e. the Soviets owed Finland goods. During the years since, this has gradually been paid off as goods, services, and cash payments, until the last payment was made three years ago.

One of the early payments was the Buk-system, which arrived in Finland in the mid-90’s and replaced the earlier (and outdated) Soviet-made S-125 ‘Neva’ (SA-3 GOA), local designation ItO 79. The Buk-M1 was introduced under the ItO 96-designation (now ITO 96), and served for roughly a decade until concerns over its vulnerability to countermeasures caused its gradual withdrawal in favour of the medium-ranged NASAMS II (ITO 12). The last batch of conscripts trained on the system in 2005, but the system was scheduled to remain in service at least for a further ten years.

Fast forward to 2014, when the Dutch prosecutor’s office contacted Finnish authorities and asked for technical assistance as part of the criminal investigation into the fate of the MH17. Exactly which Finnish authority received the request is unclear, but eventually a small circle of top politicians were the ones who made the decision on whether to answer the call or not. The decision was made to collaborate with the Dutch prosecutor’s office in full,  and to keep the cooperation secret from the general public. The last part was due to the Dutch authorities requesting that this would be the case, and was not seen as anything unusual given the circumstances. Evidence gathering is a tricky matter even in a ‘normal’ case, and as such it was understood that the cooperation would not be disclosed until during the eventual trial, at the earliest.

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The third arrival of the bodies of MH 17 victims. The coffins were transported from Kharkov to the Eindhoven Air Base. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Hille Hillenga – defensie.nl

All this was revealed during the press conference, where the President stressed that the decision was not taken lightly. The acquisition document of the Buk, which isn’t public, forbids the disclosure of information concerning the system to third parties. This was then weighted against the UN Security Council Resolution calling upon all parties to provide any requested assistance to the investigation(s). During the investigation a number of requests have been made, with the most ‘special’ one probably being the request to detonate a warhead and collect part of the shrapnel (contrary to some reports, no missile firings seems to have taken place). This was done in an undisclosed location in Finland by the Finnish Defence Forces in the presence of Dutch officials, and the requested shrapnel was handed over to the Dutch authorities.

Key to the story is that throughout it was the Dutch prosecutor’s office that was in contact with the Finnish authorities. According to president Niinistö, Finland has handed over all information requested by the Dutch authorities, and at no single point have the investigators expressed any kind of disappointment that the data wouldn’t have been thorough enough. The current issue came about as a result of the Dutch prosecutor asking permission that the evidence be handed over to JIT. The letter which requested this did not include any time frame for when the answer was needed, and as such it was decided to send a small committee over to the Netherlands to discuss how this change had come about, and exactly which part of the evidence was needed (the president confirmed that it was preferred and legally more straightforward to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office rather than the JIT). Before the Finnish administration had had time to put their plan into action, the JIT published their interim report and the fact that Finland was involved was leaked.

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President Niinistö and Foreign Minister Soini at the MH17 press conference. Source & copyright: Matti Porre/Tasavallan presidentin kanslia
The President was clearly not happy with how the Finnish actions had been portrayed in the media, or with the fact that the Dutch had leaked the info after being the ones who originally requested secrecy.

Enter the follow-up discussion on what the press conference meant, and how Finland’s reactions should be seen (especially in the light of our relations vis-a-vis Russia).

Some have been quick to argue that there are traces of Finlandisation all over the handling of the issue. The simple fact that the decision to supply the evidence was taken by the political leadership and not by the officials normally handling these kinds of requests point in this direction, as do the continued emphasise on how hard the decision was due to the acquisition document forbidding this kind of information sharing. The critics also point to the fact that Finland did inform the Russian authorities of the request for evidence and that we were going to collaborate with the Dutch investigation. ‘We told no-one, except the Kremlin’, does indeed have a somewhat bad ring to it.

On the other hand, there are also a number of issues here that point directly in the opposite direction, perhaps the main point being that Finland decided to inform Russia that we were going to disclose technical details of their SAM system to an investigation that quite likely was going to result in Russian citizens being charged. The key word here is ‘informed’, the government never asked for permission, something the president clearly stated had been decided against when asked about the issue. The investigation has also spanned over the latest set of parliamentary elections, showing that there is broad support for it to continue.

(A third point of view was the pro-Russian trolls who now argued that this shows that the JIT isn’t trustworthy and that the ‘true source’ of the bow tie-shaped fragments now has been revealed. As noted, the disinformation campaign on the MH17 has long since lost all its credibility.)

I am personally a bit torn over the issue, and felt the beginning of the presser emphasised how hard the decision was a bit too much considering the nature of the issue. On the other hand, I find it hard to be too shocked over the fact that the request for assistance wasn’t dealt with as a run-of-the-mill case. It should be noted that as the original acquisition deal for the Buk-missiles was handled through the government-to-government discussions on the clearing account, the ban on publishing the information is not a buyer-supplier NDA, but most likely part of a government-to-government agreement. Pointing to this is also the fact that it indeed was the president and the Foreign Minister who hosted the press conference, showing that this was dealt with as a matter of foreign policy and not one of a strictly legislative nature.

There has also been discussions regarding if the information handed over to the Dutch actually included such data that was covered by the ban in the first place. This is all pure speculation, as no-one in the public has seen neither the acquisition document nor the details on what information has been requested. However, my personal opinion is that if the information was indeed of such a nature that the Dutch prosecutor needed to get it from an operator of the system, it is also likely to be covered by the secrecy clauses.

In the end, while the exact pattern of decision making might or might not have followed the letter of the law to the point, the whole issue was probably best described by FIIA’s Mika Aaltola who noted that the whole issue is a “storm in a teacup”. This has been further confirmed by the Dutch Foreign Minister Koenders apologising to FM Soini for the leaks, as well as by the chair of the JIT, Gerrit Thiry, who clarified that it certainly wasn’t his intention to criticise the Finnish authorities, but that it was an unfortunate misunderstanding between the Finnish journalist and the Dutch police making the statement. Thiry is extremely satisfied with the assistance provided by the Finnish authorities, and as such everything is back to normal.