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.

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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.

Scandinavian Sniper – Finnish and Swedish Marksmen

By an interesting coincidence, both the Finnish Defence Forces’ official podcast Radio Kipinä as well as Sweidsh author/historian Lars Gyllenhaal’s Militärt med Gyllenhaal-podcast dealt with today’s snipers in their respective defence forces. As such, this felt like a good opportunity to compare and contrast the training, equipment, and employment of these.

A short note on the podcasts. The links above go to their respective iTunes-pages, but they are also found e.g. on YouTube. The language is Finnish for Radio Kipinä and Swedish for Militärt med Gyllenhaal. For their sniper episodes, both interviewed an officer who has a long background as a sniping instructor, Major Tapio Saarelainen  of the Finnish Army Academy and Captain Håkan Jorsell of the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion (AJB).

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A Swedish sniper from the army ranger battalion during an exercise in Gotland last year. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

Let’s first get Simo Häyhä out of the way before continuing on towards the modern day. Arguably a prime contender for the title of best known Finnish soldier, Häyhä fought as a sniper at the Kollaa front during the Winter War, and is widely credited with being the most lethal sniper throughout history. Needless to say, there is quite a lot of  legends surrounding Häyhä’s short but spectacular career. Saarelainen addresses quite a number of these during the podcast, and has also written a brand new biography on Häyhä. Having met Häyhä “roughly two dozen times”, Saarelainen notes that Häyhä usually aimed for the target centre and scored most of his kills at around 150 meter range, downplaying the importance of his longer shots (his longest record hit was at 450 meter), and that he never fired from up in trees. The experiences gathered by Häyhä still influences Finnish army snipers today, and much of the basic trade remains the same. However, some specific parts of Häyhä’s tactics have become obsolete, such as using iron sights to keep a lower profile. Saarelainen notes that optics gives a decisive advantage in speed, while Jorsell agrees that while learning to employ iron sights is an importance step and a good foundation for becoming a proficient marksman, out in the field optics still take the price.

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Simo Häyhä during the Winter War. Source: Wikimedia Commons/SA-Kuva

The road to becoming a sniper is vastly different in the Swedish and Finnish defence forces, due to the basic difference of Sweden fielding a professional all-volunteer force compared to Finland’s model based on general conscription followed by reservist duty. It should also be noted that the Finnish force does not differentiate between snipers and designated marksmen, instead only using the term tarkka-ampuja (literally ‘sharpshooter’) for bothEdit: In fact the new Finnish rifle squads do feature designated marksmen, called tukiampuja (‘supporting shooter’), following the latest reform. These were not covered in the podcast. Sweden differentiates between skarpskytt (designated marksman) and prickskytt (sniper). The Swedish designated marksmen are found in infantry squads, where they provide accurate supporting fire at ranges out to 300 meters. The Swedish snipers are on the other hand part of the Swedish elite units, such as the marines, army rangers, the air force’s base security units, and the special forces. Here, the snipers are trained to operate in independent pairs at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, during all weather conditions and all times of the year. Both the spotter and the shooter in the sniper team are trained snipers, with Jorsell noting that roles may change depending on who has the better capacity that day. For Finnish snipers, while they also always operate with a pair, he may or may not be a trained sniper.

To get into sniper training, the soldier must first accepted into the basic units, after which he (or she) can volunteer to receive sniper training. This means that to e.g. become one of Jorsell’s army snipers, one must first pass the basic (but demanding) tests to be accepted into the Army Ranger Battalion, followed by a 11 month long basic military training held in Arvidsjaur, in the northernmost parts of Sweden. After this, one can volunteer for sniper training, which requires slightly higher physical and psychological marks than a normal ranger (or jaeger, as the Swedish army calls them). On this follows an eight to ten week long sniper course, followed by a grand exam being held out in the field and lasting a few days. The test covers all aspects of sniper training, and if the sniper passes he is allowed to wear the sniper badge as proof that he is a qualified sniper.

Amongst the Finnish soldiers, all units training  the infantry units train conscripts to snipers, and as such one has to first get into a infantry unit to be accepted into sniper training. The prospective sniper starts out with the normal eight week basic course, which trains basic soldier skills (including use of standard issue assault rifles). Following this, the snipers are trained in their particular field for nine weeks, with the final seven weeks focusing on the soldiers role as part of the greater unit. The other alternative is to be active in the reserve and get transferred into a wartime position as a sniper based on training received post-conscript duty.

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A Finnish sniper from KAIPR securing a landing zone during exercise METSO 16. Source. Finnish Defence Forces

Needless to say, the Finnish sniper being sent into the reserve is not up to par with a professional soldier such as the Swedish ones, something that Saarelainen readily admits. While the Swedish sniper fires approximately 1,000 rounds during a service year, a Finnish conscript fires approximately 300 7.62 mm rounds, and even less if employing a larger calibre. This is purely due to a lack of funds, and Saarelainen states that the bare minimum a sniper would need is 500 rounds.

This difference is also seen in the emphasise placed on prior knowledge. While Saarelainen wants snipers who are both hunters and have some basic competition results to show (air rifle, rimfire, …), Jorsell has trained skater boys from downtown Stockholm,  although he also confirms that a solid hunting background naturally helps. Both officers agree that no-one is born a crack shot, but it takes hard and determined work to become one, and it is a skill that requires consistent training if it is to be maintained. For the Finnish snipers, this creates an additional challenge. In practice, for the reservist to maintain his proficiency, he has to acquire his own rifle and put his own time and effort into making sure he trains adequately. The big issue here is firing ranges, as firing ranges over 100 meters long are few and far between, especially those where a civilian can stop by to fire off a few rounds. MPK arranges a few courses each year, which gives access to the defence force’s own ranges. Also, Tarkka-ampujakilta, the snipers’ guild, provides a framework for those reservists that wish to maintain their know-how. Still, it is by no means a cheap hobby, and while both officers note that no amount of equipment and technology can replace the basic skill of marksmanship, long-range shooting certainly is a practice that rewards the use of high-end equipment. The current Finnish gun laws places very little restrictions on the ownership of medium-bore bolt-action rifles and their accessories, so as long as you aren’t looking for your personal Barrett M82 you should be good to go. And, yes, you are allowed to bring your own sniper rifle to war, as long as you make sure you bring the ammunition as well (or use army standard rounds).

When it comes to equipment, the standard Finnish sniper rifles are the 7.62 TKIV 85 and the 7.62 TKIV Dragunov, both chambered in the 7.62x54r, a rimmed cartridge dating back to Czarist-Russia and the Mosin-Nagant M91 (as in 1891). The M91 was adopted in different locally modified versions as the Finnish army’s standard rifle up until the introduction of the AKM in the early 60’s. The TKIV 85 is the last of this line, and is based on refurbished receivers. The exact age of the receivers employed is unknown, but the rifles very likely have a shot at the title of oldest operational small arm still in active service. The rest of the rifle is completely reworked, including using the somewhat tighter tolerances of the 7.62x53r standard (a Finnish version of the 7.62x54r developed during the interwar years). The Dragunov is the ubiquitous Soviet semi-automatic designated marksman rifle, and doesn’t require any further introduction. The most modern design in use is the 8.6 TKIV 2000, a Sako TRG-42 chambered in .338LM, with a Zeiss Diavari V 3-12 x 56 T mounted on top. For anti-material work, the Barrett M82 in .50 BMG is found. This highly-specialised rifle is known as the 12.7 RSTKIV 2000. The effective range increases with the calibre, with snipers equipped with 7.62 mm weapons being seen as having an effective max range of 5-600 meters, .338LM being able to achieve max ranges of up to 1,000 meters, and the .50 being effective beyond 1,500 meters if the conditions allow. However, due to the Finnish geography (read: forests), in practice shots above 350 meters are rare.

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The last in a long line of Mosin-Nagant based rifles, the 7.62 TKIV 85. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

For the Swedish forces, there is basically two rifles in use. The larger is the Barrett, which the Swedish forces call the Ag 90. While the Barrett is today widely found in western forces around the world, it was in fact the Swedish Army which was the launch customer, narrowly beating the US Marine Corps with their order. The current Swedish version is the Ag 90C, which features a number of modifications to improve the overall quality of the weapon. Besides its use in the anti-material role using armour-piercing bullets at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, the rifle is also used by the engineering corps for clearing explosives. The other rifle is the Psg 90, a locally modified version of Accuracy International’s Arctic Warfare, chambered in 7.62×51 mm NATO. The weapon is also commonly known by its British designations L96 or L118A1. The ballistics of the round very closely match those of the slightly longer round used by the Finnish weapons, something which further shows the demands placed on the Swedish snipers who are trained to use their Psg’s out to the 1,000 meter distance. For self-defence, the snipers are also equipped with Ak 5 (FN FNC) assault rifles. All snipers are trained on all weapons, but naturally the exact load-out is mission specific.

When it comes to additional equipment, the Swedish snipers are better off than their Finnish compatriots. Most Finnish snipers lack such basic equipment as range-finders and wind gauges, tools which are standard issue for Swedish snipers. Still, both countries place emphasis on the snipers being able to function with the bare necessities, going back to mildot charts, maps, home-made ghillie suits, and open sights if the need arise. When it comes to their employment in combat, the Finnish snipers are subordinated to the company commander. The company commander then sets the mission (destroy, disrupt, gather intelligence, …), with the sniper deciding how the mission is to be performed. This usually places geographic restrictions on the sniper (i.e. he can’t wander off into the neighbouring company’s zone of responsibility), but otherwise he has a high degree of freedom. Some Finnish recce and SF units also have snipers at the squad level. For the Swedish snipers, my understanding is that as the jaeger units themselves often operate in front of their own lines, their snipers more often operate as part of and subordinated to their squad compared to the Finnish ones.

The other island

In the shadow of Sweden re-militarising Gotland, the focus of the Finnish discussion rapidly turned to two things: Why is the Finnish government cutting defence spending in the budget proposal presented this week, and what to do with our own blank spot, the Åland islands?

The Åland islands have been demilitarised since the (First) Crimean War of the mid-19th century. The Russian Empire, to which the Grand-Duchy of Finland belonged back then, had built an impressive coastal fortress at Bomarsund, which an Anglo-French force captured in 1854. The whole siege cost both sides less than a 100 dead each, and would probably have been all but forgotten if not for two aspects: The first ever Victoria Cross was awarded for gallantry shown during the battle, and the fact that the peace Treaty of Paris (not to be confused with the 1947 edition) that ended the conflict declared the islands demilitarised (though not the surrounding waters).

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The final assault on Bomarsund. Source: Wikimedia Commons
It should be noted that the legal status is far from clear-cut. The islands have been dealt with in a number of treaties, including the above-mentioned Paris Treaty of 1856, but also by the League of Nation decision of 1921 (expanding the demilitarisation to include surrounding waters), and the treaties with the Soviet Union following the Winter and Continuation Wars. Col. (ret.) Anders Gardberg has written a study on the islands, including the legal aspects, found here.  The questions it deals with are largely unchanged over time, keeping the 20 year old paper highly relevant. Of note is that the 1921 Convention allows for Finland to, if  “‘exceptional circumstances demand’ send into the zone and keep there temporarily such armed forces that are ‘strictly necessary for the maintenance of order'” (as quoted in Gardberg’s paper). A piece of interesting trivia is that unlike what is often stated, the inhabitants of the islands can actually be called up for conscript duty, but only in the Pilot- and Lighthouse authority. This in turn was quickly disbanded and turned into the Finnish Maritime Administration following Finnish independence, making this something of a moot point…

If we however leave the legal fine print aside, and accept the fact that there is currently nothing that points towards the Finnish politicians mustering the willpower to let the needs of the defense of this strategic area prevail over the political inertia of status quo and significant local (and Russian) opposition to an even partial re-militarisation, the question appears how much of a problem this really is?

There is little doubt that today there exists plans for the Navy to conduct a updated version of the WWII-era Operation Regatta, wherein a naval convoy at the outbreak of hostilities quickly shipped the necessary forces to the Åland Islands.

The problem, as is generally the case with the Finnish Defence Forces, is that the number of standing marine units (not counting the ships) ready to intervene at a short notice is negligible. In practice, this means that for Operation Regatta 2.0 to succeed, the crises needs to have escalated over time to the extent that a mobilisation of reservists have been initiated, and the first act of hostilities need to be something else than a ro-ro vessel heading out of St Petersburg suddenly altering its course and unloading a reinforced mechanised battalion in Mariehamn. The absolute nightmare is a coordinated surprise assault by sea and air, allowing rapid transfer of a brigade (or possibly even a reinforce one) to occupy the Åland mainland, something which could easily come out of one of the Russian snap exercises. This would be extremely hard to dislodge, and would effectively cut off Finland from the rest of world, with regards to both military room to manoeuvre and the flow of vital goods such as food and fuel for the society as a whole. This would either require Finland to give in to any demands placed by the Kremlin, let the Finnish society literally starve, or defeat the Russian force on the battlefield.

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The new Jehu-class fast assault craft of the Finnish Navy. In effect, it upgrades the coastal jaegers’ mode of  transport from ‘truck’ to ‘IFV’ to use a land forces metaphor. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
The later need not necessarily be by a frontal assault. The major difference between Gotland and Åland is that the former is a largely continuous landmass, while the latter is made up by 6,700 named (and a further 13,000 unnamed) islands and skerries. The archipelago is a battlefield unlike any other. It is virtually impossible to control all islands, leading to the forces being grouped on the ones deemed strategically important from where they can then extend zones of control over the lesser ones. Naturally, this calls for a very delicate balance between overextending and leaving gaps in the defence. As any kind of retreat or bringing in of reinforcements during an ongoing fight is extremely hazardous, operations are usually characterised by swift and determined assaults where the attacker tries to throw the defender into the sea by asserting man- and firepower superiority. If the first attack fails, the only option left is usually to try and withdraw under fire. The Hanko campaign of 1941 is probably the best historical case study to shine light on the dilemmas.

The issue for any Russian troops sitting on Åland is that they are too few to hold all major entryways at any given point. This would be the case even if this was the single main offensive operation in the Baltic Sea region, which would in turn mean that the occupiers would include the 336. Marine Brigade and the 76. Air Assault Division in Pskov (note that this is an understrength divsion). Any Russian occupation would still leave potential weak spots which would allow Finnish coastal jaegers and special forces to set up their own position in close vicinity to the Russian positions.

Finnish marine forces in action

In case the conflict started according to the Crimea-blueprint, where the Russians have deployed forces to protect their (shipping) interests in the area but the different forces aren’t actually shooting at each other, the Finnish troops could theoretically play to the strengths provided by their supply lines being short and well-protected, and create a counter-siege where the occupiers are cut off from the Russian supply bases in the St Petersburg area and the Kaliningrad exclave. This would force the Russians to either escalate the conflict into a real shooting war (one in which they have lost the element of surprise and would clearly be the attacker) or back down. If the shooting war is already a fact, the ability to use long-range anti-shipping missiles from the mainland’s archipelago and light infantry units to operate in the Åland archipelago in hit-and-run attacks and as spotters would create a race to the bottom, where both Finland and the occupying force are under siege, and the question is which one breaks faster.

However, even if the possibility of bouncing back from a strategic surprise is there, this is dependent upon the Finnish government exhibiting the required determination to realise the strategic importance of the islands and put up a fight to defend these. Sadly, this is the single part of the whole Åland question which I feel is questionable.

Lectures in Kokkola – Frisk goes Live!

I am happy to announce that I will be holding two lectures in my hometown of Kokkola this autumn. These will be held as part of the courses provided by the National Defence Training Association of Finland (MPK), in particular its training and support unit in Middle-Ostrobothnia (Keski-Pohjanmaan KOTU). A well-trained and motivated reserve is one of the key pillars of the Finnish Defence Forces, and unfortunately the recent budget cuts have left a significant hole in the defence force’s ability to maintain the training level of the reserve. Partly to compensate for this, motivated reservists, simply called aktiiviressuja (“active reservists”) in Finnish, can apply to any of the varied courses MPK provides. These include everything from taking part in full-blown military exercises to civil defense courses such as first aid, oil-spill cleanup, and prepping (or why not try Operating and maintaining a chainsaw for women?). MPK does a stellar job in providing efficient and varied training of a high-quality despite having a very limited budget, and it is a great honour for me to be a small part of this important work!

My lectures will deal with topics familiar to the readers of the blog, with the first one held 13 October and covering Kaliningrad and the Baltic states. Those who have read my earlier post on the topic will undoubtedly recognise some of the material, but I will also aim to include enough new material to make it interesting, something which shouldn’t be too hard considering the rapid pace of development currently affecting defence and security in the greater Baltic region. One sub-topic which was not featured in the post at all is how a potential crises in the region would affect Finland, something which I believe will be of great interest to my listeners.

Information about the lecture and registration is found here, under the name “Kaliningrad ja Suwalkin aukko – Baltian avain / luentotilaisuus”.

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The second lecture, held on 10 November, will be a general overview of the future of the Finnish Navy. Naturally, a lot of focus will be on Squadron 2020. But while the reintroduction of large surface combatants into the Finnish Navy rightfully takes a lot of the limelight, a number of other interesting projects are also ongoing. These include the mid-life updates of the Hamina-class FAC and Pansio-class mineferries, as well as naval applications of the Patria NEMO. My stated goal is that the audience will get a picture not only of what will change for the navy in the near- and mid-term, but crucially why these changes will be implemented. Oh, and I can almost promise that the word panssarilaiva will be mentioned.

Information about the lecture and registration is found here, under the name “Laivue 2020 ja Merivoimien kehitysnäkymät / luentotilaisuus”.

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Both lectures are free of charge, and I will make sure to reserve time for questions and some discussion towards the end. I have received questions if the material will be available somewhere, and the short answer is “I hope so”. This depends on in what form I will have my speaking notes, but if I reckon that they can be of use in a stand-alone format, I will post them here on the blog afterwards.

Being aware that both topics are rather specialised, I will keep the baseline so that no background knowledge of the specific topic is required, and then build from there. Let’s put it like this: if you enjoy the blog, I believe you will enjoy the lectures as well.

P.s. RUMINT suggests that there just *might* be some coffee involved.

The Canadian connection – Hornets in need of replacement

In 1980 Canada declared the F/A-18A Hornet the winner of their New Fighter Aircraft program, which meant it would be brought into service as the CF-18 to replace three different fighters as the country’s sole fast jet. In doing so it beat a number of other fighters, crucially the F-16A. It is important to remember that the F-16 back in those days wasn’t a multirole aircraft, but rather a within visual range fighter with a limited secondary ground attack capability. The F/A-18 with its AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles was arguably the more competent aircraft, and one of the main worries of the Canadian air force was Soviet bombers and cruise missiles swooping down over the Arctic. Canada is also a large and sparsely populated country that include large swaths of land were bailing out does not necessarily mean you’re in for a happy landing. This combination of BVR capability, longer range, and twin-engine safety in the end meant that Canada went with the more expensive option of the F/A-18 over the F-16 (it has to be mentioned that the government did claim that the economic incentives was better for the Hornet, making it cheaper for the Canadian economy. However, these kinds of arguments usually have a tendency to depend upon who’s making the calculations).

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CF-18A visiting Farnborough during its early years of service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Thomas

Thirteen years after Canada received their first F/A-18’s, the first four Hornets for Finland landed at Tampere-Pirkkala. Finland, though markedly smaller than Canada, had a largely similar set of requirements, including cold-weather capability, twin-engine safety, long-range, and focus on the interceptor role. In the end, both Canada and Finland have been very happy members of the Hornet club, but the end of that era looms at the horizon.

Now the alert reader interrupts, if Finland has to replace its Hornets by 2025 due to their lifespan being up, Canada, having bought theirs ten years earlier, by the same logic should have replaced theirs already?

Yes and no. Finland operated the Hornet up until now as a single-role fighter, have placed a higher focus on traditional dogfighting maneuvers, which are extremely taxing on the airframe. In other words, not all flight hours are created equal, and not all aircraft fly the same amount of yearly hours. Also, the Canadian Hornets have been through a number of upgrade programs. Currently they seem to be looking at another set of programs which will take the aircraft up to and past 2025, not bad considering that the original lifespan was envisioned as 20 years (i.e. up to 2002). Canada also did have the replacement figured out, having been a partner of the F-35/JSF program since its beginning, and is currently a Level 3 Partner, i.e. the ‘normal’ level of partnership (only the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy are ranked higher).

Canadian Hornets in operation against ISIL as part of Operation IMPACT

Still, the F-35 has been beset by delays, and the project has been something of a hot potato in Canadian politics. The latest major turn was when Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a victory in the federal elections last year, with the party’s position having been that they will ditch the F-35 and instead launch an open tender for a new fighter (with the F-35 being banned from participating). However, Canada have continued to make the required payments to stay a partner in the program while reviewing how the Hornet should be replaced.

Enter July, and amidst it becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to replace, or at least supplement, the Canadian Hornets, the Canadian government launched what can best be described as a non-binding Request for Information. The aircrafts under consideration are the usual suspects: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35 (which is back in the running), and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Now, the interesting thing here is the schedule, with the answers to the questionnaire having been requested within three weeks (compare to the eight months allocated for the RFI issued by the Finnish HX). The details are rather sketchy, mainly because the questionnaire is “neither a Call for Tenders nor a Request for Proposals”. The background information provided also emphasises that “no procurement decision has been made“ and that “no summary or final report will be issued following the collection of information from industry”. The schedule for replacing the Hornets is literally given as “as soon as possible”, which ought to make things interesting. The whole thing feels like it is done under extreme time pressure. 

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A F-35 mock-up in Canadian colours. The only way the Lightning II will ever wear the maple leaf? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alan Rioux

Interestingly enough, the flight scenarios in the attached file requires the respondent to use “actual aircraft configuration (utilize systems which are operational with Armed Services today only – non-developmental)”. This requirement pans out very differently. While Saab currently is the only one to sport the Meteor operationally, they only operate the 39C Gripen and not the longer-ranged 39E which would add considerably to their odds when flying intercepts far out over the Arctic. On the other hand, the F-35 is currently only operational in the V/STOL F-35B version, and if the Canadians decide to interpret the requirement literally, this is effectively a way to make certain the F-35 is a non-starter without explicitly writing so. Another problem for the F-35A is the bases used in the scenario. As fellow blogger Doug Allen noted over at Best Fighter 4 Canada, the 6,000 feet runways are too short for comfort. The Typhoon in turn is designed for exactly the scenario described in the evaluation, transiting high and fast to meet an enemy aircraft far out, but is a few years from getting an AESA radar and the Meteor. The Rafale does feature supersonic drop tanks and a potent AESA set, but the repeated requests for “seamless” integration with Five Eyes ISTAR and other tactical and strategic assets might not play to its strengths. The weapons are also uniquely French.

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The only non-carrier operator of the Super Hornet, Australia bought a batch of F/A-18F Super Hornets to supplement their ‘legacy’ Hornets while waiting for the F-35A. Sounds familiar? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Enter the Super Hornet, which features the AN/APG-79 AESA radar, is seamlessly integrated into the US-Canadian NORAD air defence network, and carries the same munitions and missiles that the ‘legacy’ Hornet does. The last part is explicitly asked for in the questionnaire, something which is not the case in any documents regarding the HX which are openly available. The Super Hornet manufacturing line is also struggling with having too few aircraft to produce each year, so quickly ramping up to supply the RCAF with a limited number of stop-gap aircraft would be *relatively* easy. Boeing also has an established partnership with the Canadian defence forces and aviation industry. All in all, the stage seems set for Boeing’s fighter, and Canada is indeed one of the countries for which stealth isn’t necessarily a big deal, at least not for their homeland defence/NORAD contribution. Noteworthy is also that the questionnaire does mention cost for 100 pilots being trained, which would imply that the information could serve as a base for the complete Hornet replacement program (though one should remember that there isn’t a procurement decision for anything as of yet).

Another possibility is that, despite his continued official anti-F-35 view, Trudeau is trying to set the stage for a F-35 purchase, by creating the foundations for a competition, which the F-35 then can sweep clean (compare to Kampfly in Denmark). For Canada, a mix of Super Hornets (or Typhoons) for NORAD duties combined with F-35A’s for expeditionary work under NATO and UN commitments might actually be the ideal solution. Only time will tell if this will be the final outcome.

A big thanks to Karl Rieder for the link to the Canadian source material! Do follow him on Twitter if you don’t already.

The Battle of Schmarden

The skirmish of Schmarden was one in a long line of battles fought along the eastern front during the First World War. Like countless other battalion-sized operations, it would probably have slipped into total obscurity, if not for the fact that the German Landwehr Bataillon that conducted the attack was reinforced by the Pionier Kompanie of the Königlich Preussisches Jägerbataillon Nr. 27.

Just south of Schmarden, today’s Smārde in central Latvia, the Russian troops had managed to create a forward line of defenses that extended close to the German lines, and a decision had been made to perform a nighttime attack to destroy this forward line. A German battalion of reserve infantry would perform the attack in two waves, with the first wave capturing the target and moving up 500 meters past it, in order to let the second wave destroy the fieldworks. After this was done, all German troops would then withdraw back to their starting position.

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The pioneer company parading during the summer of 1917. The officer riding on horseback is the German lieutenant Basse, who commanded the company during the battle at Schmarden. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Unknown

To facilitate the destruction of the fieldworks, it was decided that combat engineers were needed, and it so happened that nearby the 27th Royal Prussian Jäger Battalion had a company of engineers grouped as the battalion reserve. This unit was made up of Finnish volunteers, who had managed to leave the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland in order to reach Germany and get military training there. This was all done in anticipation of the coming War of Independence. The members of the battalion, simply called Jääkärit in Finnish, came to provide the core of the ‘White’ Finnish Army in the Finnish Civil War of 1918, and several of the key officers in the Finnish Army during the Second World War had received their training in the clandestine battalion. As such, the importance of the battalion for the development of the Finnish armed forces is hard to overstate.

In July of 1916 the infantry component of the battalion was responsible for a rather calm stretch of the frontline in today’s Latvia, but the engineers had been held in reserve and hadn’t seen any real fighting. The attack near Schmarden would be their baptism of fire. Probably due to this, the company would not operate as a whole unit, but the engineers were attached to German squads either in pairs or in small groups of three. Exactly a hundred years ago, at midnight the night between the 24 and 25 of July, the troops started moving.

While the sky was relatively dark, the tall vegetation in no-man’s land meant that the Russian sentries was alerted by the sound of troops moving, and soon the advancing forces were fired upon by not only rifles and machine guns, but heavy weapons and artillery as well. Despite this, they managed to press on, and soon reached the first line of defences. These were relatively lightly defended, but when moving up the additional 500 meters they met harder resistance in the main and rear trenches.

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A map of the the movements of the battalion during its stay at the frontline in 1916-1917. The battle of Schmarden took place at no.2. Source: Jaakko Suomalainen/Wikimedia Commons

The battle as a whole was a rather messy affair, with the advancing troops becoming split up and intermixed. It also seems like the Russian positions weren’t completely destroyed, and the withdrawal was complicated by both Russian and German artillery targeting the no-man’s land. According to the battle reports, the Finnish engineers had by and large shown great courage, and five of the sixteen Russian prisoners of war captured were captured by the Finns. However, it was also reported that in the heat of the battle some had forgot that their primary task was the demolishing of the Russian fortifications, with the Finns at times having advanced in front of the German infantry, and some even ditching their shovels to be able to keep up with the more lightly equipped infantrymen! Still, the general consensus seems to have been that the engineers performed well for being completely ‘green’, and Lt.General Wyneken is said to have thanked the Finns for their part in the fighting.

Unremarkable as Schmarden was, the total losses for the Finns were two soldiers killed in action and a further seven suffering minor wounds, it marked the first time since 1809 that a Finnish combat unit had taken part in an attack against a Russian force on the battlefield. It was also destined to remain the single major offensive operation undertaken by the 27th Jäger Battalion. Schmarden Day is today each year celebrate on the 25 of July as the service branch day of the Finnish combat engineers, so happy Schmardenin päivä to all my pioneeri readers!

The description of the battle is largely based on this text on from the homepage of the Ostrobothnian Guild of Combat Engineers.