A Northern Heavy-lift

I have traditionally been rather sceptic of some of the more innovative new capabilities suggested for the Finnish Defence Forces on Twitter. The issue is usually money, and in particular that with a number of gaping holes in the budget the money available could usually be better spent on more conservative endeavours. Today, however, a rather interesting suggestion appeared.


Now, before you (yes, especially you Army officers) move one to more realistic proposals, hear me out on what make this proposal more interesting than, say, a multi-national amphibious division.

Vertical Movement

It is no secret that both Finland and Sweden like airborne movement of light infantry. Sweden have their own airmobile battalion in the 31. Btn of the Life Regiment Hussars K 3, while in Finland several units, including the special jaegers of the Border Guards (who have their own helicopter wing), the paras of the Utti Jaeger Regiment, and the different readiness units spread out over the country, all regularly train with helicopters. The benefits are obvious. A helicopter will get you from point A to point B quickly, especially through rugged terrain the difference compared to ground transport is significant. It also needs a relatively small open space to be able to land on, and the units transported need relatively little training compared to the traditional way of doing vertical movement by parachuting people out of airplanes.

Of course there are issues as well. Helicopters are relatively squishy (though not as badly as some of their detractors suggest), and expensive to operate. While the units being transported need relatively little training, crewing the helicopters on the other hand is a very complex and demanding task. This means that there will always be a limited number of helicopters available, while at the same time their utility means that they will always be in high demand. The end-result means that it is risky for any commander to count upon having helicopter support when requested.

Nordic Operations

Three Bell 412 SP helicopters of the 339 SQD, Royal Norwegian Air Force. Source: Ole-Sverre Haugli / Forsvaret

Both the Finnish and Swedish Defence Forces use the NH90 for tactical transports, with the Swedish Air Force also use the UH-60M Blackhawk in the same role. While Norway operate both the NH90 and the EH 101 Merlin, they are mainly reserved for maritime roles, with the main tactical transport being the venerable Bell 412 SP. While the Bell 412 certainly is a considerable improvement compared to the Vietnam-era UH-1D, it is still a relatively old and light system, hauling a maximum of 11 passengers and an underslung load of 1,500 kg maximum.

The Finnish Defence Forces officially states that NH90 is capable of transporting 16 passengers and has an underslung capacity of 3,000 kg, while the Swedish Air Force is happy to cram in an even twenty passengers, or half that number if the soldiers bring their gear with them. This highlights an important point in airborne operations: light infantry don’t travel light, and certainly not if they are planning on doing a lot of fighting.

The setup of a regular Finnish jaeger company, sporting 268 or 297 soldiers depending on if it has three or four jaeger platoons on strength. Which boxes do you leave at home if you’re on a lift with a dozen helicopters? Source: Jääkärijoukkueen ja -ryhmän käsikirja 2018

Especially if one starts looking at support weapons or want a serious amount of ammunition and supplies brought along, it quickly becomes evident that ten NH90s or Bell 412s won’t allow for much in the way of Operation Market (though a remake of Operation Deadstick just might be possible).

Increasing the number and/or size of helicopters have always been felt as being too expensive, and it is a great irony that only thanks to the serious delays of the NH90-program the Swedish force actually has the largest inventory of medium transports of the three countries. However, there are a few reasons why a tri-nation heavy lift force could work.

The Case for Heavy Lift

The utility of even a limited number of heavy-lift helicopters is obvious. Case in point being the famous Chinook Bravo November of the Falklands War, where the single surviving Chinook of the British forces, flew 1,500 troops and 550 tons of cargo during the conflict. Less well-known is the fact that this distinguished old lady is still in active use, and has seen service both in Iraq and Afghanistan, though now upgraded to HC.4 standard.

A British Chinook coming in to drop off not one but two 105 mm light guns during an exercise in Oman. Source: MoD / PO[Phot]Lewis.S.J. via Wikimedia Commons

A heavy-lift helicopter is able to significantly add to the combat value of an airmobile unit, either in the form of more soldiers, a single Chinook could lift a platoon of jaegers by itself, or by carrying significantly more supplies to the battlefield. This also includes items too heavy for the NH90, with an underslung load up to and above 10,000 kg being possible (depending on fuel and other cargo).

Crucially, while joint-units outside of an alliance are something of a risk, shared transport assets have proved feasible. The Heavy Airlift Wing at Pápa have proved to be a successful concept, and one which all three countries are involved in. While not a one-to-one comparison, a similar-ish setup with say fifteen helicopters spread over the three countries (five national helicopters each) would allow for on average three being operational in each country at any given time, as well as allowing for dry- or wet-lease of the other countries’ assets in times of need. This could include both during international missions, where heavy helicopters are a sought after capability, or during national emergencies such as the large forest fires which plagued Sweden this summer.

While operating a small force of heavy helicopters alone would quickly become expensive due to the fixed cost, this kind of shared unit would offer economics of scale, and also provide an excellent building block in case an escalating crisis calls for rapid expansion of airborne capabilities. The CH-47 (there are really only two options, so we’ll just predict that the CH-47F and CH-53K would meet in a fly-off were the former would win) is also everything the NH90 wasn’t, being a tried and tested design supported by a large number of flying units, both in Europe and worldwide. This makes international cooperation (and possible expansion) relatively straightforward and cheap.

The Questions to be Solved

What are then the pitfalls that need to be avoided for this to work?

To begin with there’s always the question of workshare. With the NH90 Patria is a major service hub, and it is entirely possible that other actors would place significant pressure on local politicians in the other countries to ensure that they would get more of the work done domestically. Splitting maintenance and other support functions might mean that the envisioned economics of scale evaporate.

An even greater risk is nationalised versions. Very few joint procurements have actually succeeded in producing a situation where the same product is bought by all involved. The nightmare scenario would be one country dropping out, one buying the Chinook, and the other getting the King Stallion.

The biggest question is still the hard numbers. Keen readers will have noted that I haven’t mentioned any sums here, as truth be told I am not in a position to estimate the share each country would have to pay to operate a third of a Chinook-unit. It might very well be overly expensive, and would need some serious calculations before any commitments are made. Some funds would have to come from outside the defence budgets, as all countries’ defence forces are on extremely tight budgets already. As the helicopters would be valuable assets for emergency services and as part of disaster relief efforts domestically and internationally, having the ministries of interior and foreign affairs respectively provide part of the funding would likely be a must for this to work.

All in all it is a long shot. But it just might be worth looking into.

Ska Moder Svea svika broderfolket?

Charly Salonius-Pasternak och Robin Häggblom, om att de svenska politikernas brist på ansvarstagande för försvaret riskerar samarbetet med Finland och äventyrar stabiliteten i Östersjöregionen (länk).

Sveriges försvarsförmåga har förbättrats genom konsekvent arbete i Försvarsmakten och genom att fördjupa internationella samarbeten. Förbättringen kommer dock (också enligt Högkvarterets egen bedömning) att raderas ut om politikerna inte avsevärt höjer försvarsanslaget i närtid.

Detta kommer i sådana fall att försämra Sveriges säkerhet, påverka samarbete med Finland negativt och på sikt öka de säkerhetspolitiska spänningar i Östersjöregionen.

I praktiken har detta förbigåtts i den svenska valdebatten. Från finländsk horisont är det svårt att förstå hur en central angelägenhet för staten så totalt kan hamna i skymundan i valet till den svenska Riksdagen.

Det svenska försvaret behöver enligt ÖB Micael Bydén ett minimum av 18 miljarder kronor i tillskott mellan 2018 och 2021. Därefter måste försvarsbudgeten mera än fördubblas för att Sverige (jmf utredningen Försvarsmaktens långsiktiga materielbehov och ÖB:s framtidsstudie Tillväxt för ett starkare försvar) ska kunna erhålla en försvarskapacitet som möjliggör försvaret av riket – och då tillsammans med andra.

Men om försvarsförmågan minskar gör det Sverige å ena sidan till ett mer intressant objekt att utsätta för militära påtryckningsmedel och, å andra sidan, till en mindre intressant samarbetspartner.

När det gäller den regionala stabiliteten är rädslan för ett återskapande av försvarsvakuum runt Sverige det enskilt största problemet. Knutet till detta är oron för att även när Sverige ökar sin försvarsförmåga, såsom det har skett de senaste tre åren, är försvarspolitiken och dess finansiering så oförutsägbar att samarbetspartners inte kan förutse hur hållbar försvarsförmågan egentligen är.

Om den förstärkta försvarsförmågan sjunker igen hägrar en ond cirkel som börjar med för låga försvarsanslag. Detta ökar i sin tur behovet av internationellt samarbete (dock med Sverige som en klart “mer lättviktig partner”) och särskilt med fokus på internationella övningar som ger utrikes- och försvarspolitiskt kapital, men där Sverige inte har råd att delta med mer än symboliska resurser.

Samtidigt minskar dessa kostsamma internationella övningar ytterligare tillgängliga medel för daglig verksamhet, något som på sikt ytterligare minskar försvarsförmågan.

Ett axplock som tyder på att denna onda cirkel redan gör sig gällande, finns i Officerstidningen nr 5 2018. För att spara pengar har Markstridsskolan som bland annat står för simulatorträning, valt att inte delta i arméns stabs- och sambandövning (Assö).

I något skede måste då Nato – garanten för militär stabilitet i regionen – omvärdera vilken relation försvarsalliansen ska ha till Sverige. En möjlighet är att Sverige ansöker om medlemskap i Nato, något som dock skulle innebära krav på en markant ökad försvarsbudget.

De svenska politikerna kan också offentligt, eller i skymundan, komma överens om att erbjuda ökad tillgänglighet för Nato (och sannolikt USA) när det gäller svenskt territorium och resurser (till exempel underrättelseinformation). I gengäld skulle Nato:s medlemmar fylla vakuumet – det vill säga ge de facto försvarsgarantier. Detta skulle också öka Sveriges beroende av USA, något som i nuläget med Trump för en mindre förutsägbar säkerhetspolitik än förr.

Kravet på att Sverige deltar ännu mer i Nato:s försvarsövningar skulle sannolikt öka, och möjligen skulle Sverige avkrävas ett klargörande av den ensidiga svenska solidaritetsdeklarationen, så att Sverige förbinder sig att stödja Nato:s försvar av alliansens medlemmar i Östersjöregionen (främst Baltikum). Det skulle innebära att Sveriges de factosuveränitet och utrikespolitiska manöverutrymme minskar.

Om den svenska försvarsmakten inte tillförs mer resurser kan man i Finland börja ifrågasätta värdet av finländsk-svenskt försvarssamarbete. Detta är ju något som står och faller med tillit och genuin ökad samförsvarsförmåga. Tillit byggs genom skapande av täta informella nätverk mellan alla nivåer av respektive försvarsmakt och ökad kunskap om hur krigstida förband på kompaninivå och uppåt kan uppträda tillsammans. Det är en tröskelhöjande samförsvarsförmågan som byggs igenom offentliga och stora bilaterala övningar som till exempel respektive flygvapens övningar under 2017.

Båda delarna kan äventyras om den svenska försvarsmakten inte har råd att delta i kvalificerad övning med finländska soldater.

Även om det svensk-finländska försvarssamarbetet inte har byggts eller borde byggas på gemensamma anskaffningar av materiel, går det att slå fast att om den svenska försvarsförmåga raseras kommer det att påverka sannolikheten för att Gripen väljs som nästa jaktplan för Finland.

Ur totalförsvarssynvinkel är en viktig faktor att Finlands försörjningslinjer hotas om Sverige inte klarar att skydda svenskt territorialvatten från Öresund till Skärgårdshavet. Om inte betydande budgetmedel anslås kommer dock nödvändiga nyinvesteringar i svenska flottan att skjutas på framtiden – och detta i ett läge när ett antal av ytfartygen och ubåtarna håller på att falla för åldersstrecket.

Flottans (och flygvapnets) nyinvesteringar säkerställs dock troligen av politikerna på grund av industripolitiken, något som dock sannolikt lämnar försvaret med för få användare av dessa system.

Extern säkerhet (nationellt försvar) är en grunduppgift för en stat, och något som bara staten kan organisera. Oviljan hos svenska politiker under en lång rad regeringar att “betala för vad de har beställt”, ger en signal om att Sverige inte tar försvaret av det egna land seriöst; man talar gärna om framtiden, men när det gäller svenska försvarsförmågans långtidsåteruppbyggnad – speciellt arméns – är de närmaste åren kritiska.

Tyvärr implicerar det att politikerna antingen inte bryr sig om eller alternativt inte litar på den militära ledningens bedömning. Ingendera utgör ett bra utgångsläge i en krissituation.

Om inte den nu hotande nedgången i försvarsförmågan åtgärdas, finns en allvarlig risk att Sverige kommer att förlora utrikespolitiskt manöverutrymme samtidigt som Försvarsmakten blir tvungen att än en gång anpassa sig till att endast ha en begränsad roll i försvaret av svenskt territorium. Uppkomsten av ett försvarsvakuum skulle också ha allvarliga konsekvenser för stabiliteten i Östersjöregionen.

Det krävs raska och meningsfulla beslut gällande det svenska försvaret, om Moder Svea inte vill svika sina grannar och sin identitet som ett solidariskt land.

CHARLY SALONIUS-PASTERNAK är äldre forskare vid Utrikespolitiska institutet i Helsingfors.

ROBIN HÄGGBLOM är analytiker i försvars- och säkerhetspolitik och driver försvarsbloggen Corporal Frisk.

Schrödinger’s Griffin

The JAS 39E Gripen is something of a paradox. It’s at the same time both a mature concept dating back to the late 80’s and a fighter so new the first deliveries aren’t planned until next year. The program is still reportedly on schedule while the first flight was pushed back and there are persistent rumours that the following 39-9 and 39-10 have been delayed due to the recent upgrades. While the two-seat Foxtrot-version is developed by Brazil for the needs of the Brazilian Air Force, any Finnish order for conversion trainers would be assembled at the normal production line in Sweden. And despite all of this, the Echo is still happily continuing as one of the favourites for the HX-program.

Grip 290
JAS 39C (cn 39290) demonstrating one of the key issues with the Charlie-generation of the Gripen – the limited number of stations available to weapons and external stores such as fuel tanks and sensors. This is being adressed with an increase in the number of hardpoints for the Echo-generation. Source: Own picture

The answer to the latest paradox is multi-facetted. One of the key factors is size. The small(ish) Gripen is the sole single-engined fighter in the HX-competition besides the F-35, and small size means fewer parts, lower fuel consumption, and overall lower acquisition and operating costs (ceteris paribus). Saab is confident that this will play a major part in the equation, or as country manager Magnus Skogberg puts it:

We can deliver with margin within 7 to 10 billion Euros

But as we have discussed earlier, with a set budget and a cap on the number of aircrafts, the interesting part is how much combat capability can be delivered within these two? On paper, this does seem to favour bigger and more capable aircraft, but that would be to overlook how tight the 10 billion Euro cap actually is as well as overlooking a number of the Gripen’s stronger cards.

8e4fb29f5ba82504_800x800ar
39-8, the first ‘Echo’, flies with IRIS-T wingtip mounted missiles and several weapons pylons. Picture courtesy of Saab.

The whole concept behind the Gripen, the earlier A/B/C/D as well as the current E/F versions, is operations against a numerically superior peer-level enemy. This puts significant demands upon the ability to get the most out of every single aircraft, from the ground up. To begin with the aircrafts get a large number of flight hours during combat operations, thanks to the quick turnaround time. This is something the Swedish jets demonstrated to their Finnish hosts at exercise Ruska 2017 last autumn. The same exercise also demonstrated the ability of the Gripen to seamlessly fit into the Finnish air combat system. This is no surprise, as the development of the Finnish and Swedish air combat doctrines have been heavily influenced by each other, including dispersed basing and operations with limited support equipment.

At the other end of the spectrum, Saab has put significant works into making the OODA-loop as short as possible. The key issue here is to make the man-machine-interface as effective as possible, providing the (outnumbered) pilot with the information he or she needs in a way that he or she can quickly process it and make the necessary split-second decisions. This is made possible by the completely fused sensor and sensor control system, which includes not only the Selex ES-05 Raven AESA radar, but also an IRST (the smaller sister of the Typhoon’s PIRATE), the passive electronic warfare sensors, as well as datalinks. The combination of IRST and passive EW sensors is of special interest, as they are both Saab’s answer regarding how to counter stealth fighters as well as the key to executing completely ‘silent’ intercepts.

J35J wings
Not too long ago, the fighter that made up half the Finnish Air Force was built by Saab. These kinds of traditions have a tendency to echo. Note that the Draken was a pioneer in IRST-sensors as well. Source: Own picture

As Skogberg briefs the gathered Finnish media at the Finnish Air Force 100 anniversary air show, he is interrupted by a roar as J 35J Draken ‘Johan 56‘ of the Swedish Air Force Historical Flight does it’s practice run, a physical reminder that less than 20 years ago it was a Saab-built fighter that defended the Finnish skies. This obviously points to another key aspect. Back in the Cold War Sweden stored surplus Draken-versions, ready to send them over to Finland in case of conflict (Finland was bound by the Paris Peace Treaty to have a cap on the number of fighters operated, but had instead trained a surplus number of pilots). While the same exact procedure is unlikely to be relevant today, Sweden is still arguably Finland’s closest partner, and having fighters which can use the exactly same munitions and support equipment would be a significant benefit.

Försvarsmakten
Försvarsmakten, the Swedish Defence Forces, is the single most important partner of the Finnish Defence Forces. This simple fact is bound to be reflected both in the national security evaluation, but also when looking into what kind of operational capabilities can be expected from the 39E Gripen in HX. Source: Own picture

Crucially, much of this fits right into the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Finnish and Swedish ministers of defence earlier this month. The MoU outlines that Finland and Sweden “will achieve increased operational effect through combined use of resources, [and] increased interoperability” in a “defence cooperation [that] covers peace, crises and war.” This is all based on the fact that “the ability to act jointly also raises the threshold against incidents and armed attacks”.

However, when the Finnish Air Force is looking for an operational fighter to fill the gap left by the Hornets the question is if the Swedish fighter is just a bit too far into the future. The first deliveries to FMV, the Swedish Defence Material Administration, will take place next year. However, the first deliveries from FMV to the Swedish Air Force are only set for 2021, the year of the HX decision, where they will reach full operational capability only in 2025, the year of the first HX deliveries. Saab insists that the Echo is a very mature and proven system, and it is true that FMV will handle parts of the test and evaluation which in other nations would be part of the air force’s T&E program. Still, there’s little room for error if the Finnish Air Force is to be able to evaluate any kind of operational configuration of the Echo. Saab is trusting that they will be able to do this thanks to the complete decoupling of hardware and software which they have made. So far it seems to be working, and Saab’s stated goal is to push upgrades for the operational Echo at even shorter intervals (and hence smaller in scope) compared to Charlie’s three-year cycles.

As far as we understand, no-one is doing avionics architecture as we are

The path forward for HX

The preliminary request for quotations for the HX-program is now out, and the process is kicking into the next gear. The manufacturers will have about three-quarters of a year from when it was sent out before they will have to return their answers early next year. However, what happens after that is the really interesting part.

The offers will be evaluated according to a stepped ladder of requirements, where all stages except the last one are of the go/no-go nature. If the preliminary bid doesn’t meet the requirements of a step it is back to go and the negotiation table (note, this is where the ‘preliminary’ comes into the process), and the Defence Forces will discuss with the manufacturer how their bid can be tuned to meet the requirements so that an updated bid can pass the step and move on to the top of the ladder. The goal is not to shake down the field, but to get the best possible offer from all five companies when it is time for the final and legally binding offers.

The first requirement is maintenance and security of supply. The supplier will have to present a plan for how the aircrafts are able to keep operating both during peacetime and in war. This will require plans for in-country spares and training for maintainers.

2018-01-11 JS-3039
The unique and highly centralised maintenance model of the F-35 Lightning II has raised questions whether the aircraft can meet the requirements for security of supply for militarily non-aligned Finland. Source: Jonas Selim / Forsvaret

Moving on from here comes the life-cycle costs. The project is receiving a start-up sum of up to 10 Bn Euros, but after this is used up the operating costs of the system will have to be covered under the defence budget as it stands today. In other words, the cost of training pilots and ground crew, renewing weapon stocks, maintaining the aircrafts, refuelling – everything will have to be covered by a sum similar to that used for keeping the F/A-18C Hornets in the air. Naturally this ties in to the first requirement, as an aircraft requiring vast amounts of spares and maintenance will have a hard time meeting both the security of supply and the LCC requirements at the same time.

Industrial cooperation will then be the third step. 30% of the total acquisition value will have to be traded back into the country, as a way of making sure that the necessary know-how to maintain the aircrafts in wartime is found domestically (and as such this requirement ties into the two earlier requirements). Notably, current sets of rules require that the industrial cooperation is indeed cooperation directly related to the HX-program. Sponsoring tours of symphonic orchestras might buy you brownie points, but not industrial cooperation.

Following these go/no-go criterias comes wartime performance. This is the only requirement which will be graded. The Defence Forces will run a number of simulations of how the aircraft would perform in different missions and scenarios, gather information from the field, and possibly do flight trials. All of this will then come together to give a picture of how a given aircraft would perform as part of the greater Finnish Defence Forces in wartime.

Yes, wartime performance as part of the whole FDF is the sole factor that will rank the aircrafts in the acquisition proposal put forward to the MoD by the Finnish Defence Forces.

Coalition forces refuel over Iraq between airstrikes against ISIL
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, both Australian and US birds, have been busy flying missions over Syria and Iraq as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, making it one of the more combat proven competitors. Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz via Wikimedia Commons

“But wait!” I hear you say. “Doesn’t economic considerations count for anything?”

Yes, indeed they do. Wartime performance require more than just 64 aircraft. If you can squeeze the price on the aircraft and its maintenance costs, the pilots will be able to receive more flight hours, and the Defence Forces will be able to stock more advanced weaponry (the low stocks of which is identified as a key issue in the latest Puolustusselonteko). Thus a cheaper aircraft allows the Defence Forces will provide more room for other things, which in the end make it more dangerous to the enemy.

Having received the acquisition proposal from the Defence Forces, the MoD takes over, and their job is to bring in the national security policy aspect into the equation. The national security evaluation coupled with the evaluation of wartime performance is then used to create the final acquisition proposal made by the MoD and put forward to the then government (i.e. the one which will take over following the next parliamentary elections). The final decision will then take place in 2021.

That the MoD will make a national security evaluation is interesting as it leaves room for politics overruling the wartime performance (though likely only to a certain extent). At first glance this would seem to favour the US contenders, however the situation might be more complex than that, thanks to the law of diminishing marginal utility. To what extent would a fighter deal actually deepen the already strong Finnish-US bilateral relations? There are already eleven confirmed export customers for the F-35, and a double-digit number of countries have bought into other US fighter programs as well, so would Finland’s inclusion (or absence) from that group be noticed in Washington? The US is also already Finland’s premier arms exporter (2015 numbers, unfortunately I didn’t find newer ones), and while this in parts comes from weapons for the Hornet-program, a number of other potential deals are on the horizon.

39E cockpit
The Wide Area Display is one of many features which makes the JAS 39E Gripen a quantum leap over the older C/D-generation. But how will the wartime performance of the relatively light fighter measure up against the larger competitors? Source: Own picture

The Swedish offering has understandably not gathered quite the same number of export customers, but here as well even without a fighter deal the bilateral Finnish-Swedish cooperation is reaching levels that make one wonder whether significant improvements are possible? Geography and shared history also seems to dictate that the relation would survive Gripen failing to secure the HX order (though Charly might disagree). The benefits of operating the same aircraft is obvious when it comes to interoperability, but for political benefits it is doubtful how much 10 Bn (in the short term) actually would buy.

Enter France, a European powerhouse with an army still measured in divisions, a permanent seat at the UN security council, a nuclear strike force, a rather low threshold for military interventions, and a marked disinterest in what takes place on the northern shores of the Baltic Sea. The Finnish fighter order would be a big deal for Dassault, accounting for 40% of the total number of Rafale’s exported (96 firm orders to date plus 64 aircrafts for HX). It is also eye catching that a large percentage of the whole sum would go to France, compared to the larger amounts of foreign content in the Eurofighter Typhoon and the JAS 39E Gripen.

© Dassault Aviation - S. Randé
Dassault Rafale, a French take on the Eurocanard. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

10 Bn Euros would not buy Finland a French expeditionary corps brimming with Leclercs in case of a Russian invasion. However, they just might ensure that Paris starts paying more attention to what happens in the European far north, courtesy of increased exchanges of people, experiences, and arms deals. If Finland would face an attack, having France as a political ally in Brussels and in the UNSC would be significant, even if the support would stop short of a military intervention. Another element is that as Washington is proving to be a more unreliable ally, the importance of the EU security cooperation is bound to increase (though granted from a low level to a somewhat less-low one), and with “the other European power” (Germany) showing limited appetite for anything resembling a confrontation with Russia over eastern Europe, the role of France in the greater Finnish security picture seems set to increase.

While Finnish security policy is famed for being slow in altering course and likely to favour trying to cash in further political points with Sweden or the USA, the question deserves to be asked:

Might it just be that we would gain more by having this investment go into our relationship with France?

Fall Colours and Bugs

Ruska: (ʁus.ka) noun. 1) Finnish word denoting the leaves changing colours during fall, autumn foliage 2) Finnish Air Force exercise focused on operations in times of crises and wartime, measured in the number of involved servicemen and -women the largest Finnish Air Force exercise of 2017.

War is unpredictable. Some things are however more predictable than others. These include enemy strikes on runways and installations of the air bases used by the only two fighter wings in the country. The solution is easy: to be somewhere else when the cruise missiles strike.

Landing
A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet touching down at the civilian Kokkola-Pietarsaari airport in the evening rain. Source: Author

Dispersed basing is at the heart of Finnish Air Force operations. The concept not only means that the aircraft are spread out, but it also means that they keep moving. Upon the order to disperse, the air force sends out ground units to road bases and civilian airfields. These units are capable of independent operations, not only taking care of the aircraft themselves, but also of handling necessary supporting functions such as providing base security. Having taken up positions, they then wait for word from higher command about if and when they will get customers. Keeping the fighters moving between bases makes it much harder to catch them on the ground, where they are at their most vulnerable.

Often this mode of operations is associated with road bases, likely because road basing is only practiced by a handful of countries (Finland, Sweden, Taiwan), and because fast jets landing and taking off in a forest makes for really nice pictures. As important however is the use of civilian fields for military use. “There are no clear advantages in using a road base as opposed to a civilian field. The usability and benefits of a base instead largely depends on the ground units found there”, Lt col Ville Hakala of the Air Force Command explains.

Taxi
Taxiing away from the main apron and onto the taxiway used for the exercise. Source: Author

The casual observer would be excused to fail to notice the fact that Kokkola-Pietarsaari airport is a working military base during Ruska17. An ultralight from the local flying club is doing touch and goes, and the passenger flights to Helsinki and Stockholm make their schedules as normal. Minimizing the impact on civilian aviation is not only part of keeping the local population in a good mood, but also how it is envisioned to work in times of crisis. For society as a whole to function, it is important that the airports stay open even if the air force decides to use them. So the ground crew discreetly wait in the background, while the military police patrol the perimeter and politely check up on people who loiter in the area. Especially those who sport a camera with a decent sized tele lens.

Then the call comes, a pair of Hornets are inbound, and the ground crew takes up position by the taxiway. But as the exercise is a complex one with a fully functioning red side operating out of bases in northern Finland and Sweden, things doesn’t always go as expected, and no sooner have the Hornets appeared overhead than an air raid alarm is issued, and the blue force fighters speed away to a destination unknown to us at the airfield. A while later the situation is cleared up, and the two fighters touch down on the rainsoaked runway, and immediately taxi over to the waiting fuel trucks. The fighters stay on the field for a while, giving the passengers arriving with the evening flight from Stockholm something to look at, before eventually taking off into the night sky.

Refuel
The fighter is undertaking a ‘hot’ refuelling, keeping the engines running throughout the procedure. Note the black lynx, currently emblem of 31. Squadron of Karelian Air Command, with a heritage dating back to WWII and the elite 24. Squadron. Source: Author

The turnaround is indeed a sight to see. While it is hard not to think of a caravan park or travelling circus when the train of specialised trucks appear, the impression stops as soon as the work starts. There is none of the frantic running or shouting of orders which are often associated with the armed forces. Instead, the small crew made up of conscripts, reservists, and regular staff move efficiently around the aircraft, each confidently handling his or her task. The fuel tanks might not be topped up in a matter of seconds and the wheels stay on, but otherwise the closest analogy that comes to mind is that of a Formula 1 pit stop. When asked about what the biggest challenges associated with operating away from the home base are, Lt col Hakala’s answer is confident: “There are no major challenges when operating from an unfamiliar airfield, our pilots are constantly practicing operations from different airports.” Looking at the refuelling operation, his confidence seems well-placed.

Seeing the fighters being serviced, it is clear that this unique way of operating the aircrafts will have implications for the HX-program. With all infrastructure being truck-mounted and handled by a motley crew stretching from teenagers to professionals with decades of experience, very special demands are placed on the aircraft. When out camping away from home, small details such as the integrated boarding ladder make a significant difference.

Ladder
The integrated ladder of the Hornet folds out from under the port leadin-edge wing extension. Though the Finnish Hornets have taken up the air-to-ground mission following MLU2, the pair arriving sported a light air superiority load with wingtip AIM-9X Sidewinders and empty underwing twin-racks for the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Source: Author

Ruska is a large exercise by most standards. Over 60 aircraft, including roughly half the Finnish Hornet-fleet is taking part, including all three Finnish Air Commands. On the ground, over 5,000 servicemen and -women are taking part, of which 2,900 are reservists. For the first time ever, the Swedish Air Force joins in to practice defending Finnish airspace together with the Finnish Air Force in a major exercise of this kind (though it should be noted that they have done it for real once before). A detachment of JAS 39 Gripen supported by a ASC 890 airborne early warning and control aircraft deployed to Kuopio-Rissala AFB as part of the blue force, with another detachment from F 21 making a re-run of last year’s role as part of the red force from their home base at Kallax AFB (Luleå).

While an important step politically in signalling the ability (and intention?) to fight together in case of an armed aggression, it is a surprisingly straightforward step from a military point of view. “Cooperation with the Swedish Air Force already have long traditions,” Lt col Hakala explains. “The Swedish Gripen is interoperable with the Finnish air defence system. The Gripens participating in the exercise are one part of the complete air defences and work together with Finnish Hornets.”

Huge thanks to all involved that helped me with the post!

Take-off
The fighting doesn’t stop just because the night falls, and the fighters head off into the darkness. Source: Author

Aurora 17 – To aid a brother

Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die

Tithonus cries out to Aurora, the goddess of dawn

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – “Tithonus”

Perhaps the final sign to show that Sweden has now moved out of the notorious ‘strategic blackout’ is the major exercise Aurora 17 currently underway in the southern parts of the country. In absolute numbers this is the largest Swedish exercise in over twenty years, while in relative numbers this is the largest share of the country’s defence forces ever to simultaneously take part in a single exercise.

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Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten
The scenario should not be unheard of to readers of the blog: Country A situated in Kaliningrad and on the Russian mainland gets into a conflict with Country B situated in Russian Karelia. To cut off Country B from international reinforcements, Country A occupies Gotland, from where they will launch an assault on the Swedish mainland to put further pressure on the Swedish defences.

No points to the one who figures out which country would play the part of Country A or which three would be Country B in a potential real-world scenario.

The exercise is vastly more complex than the above would suggest. The first part of the exercise is the transportation of the forces of Country A (the main OPFOR of the exercise) to Gotland. A significant part of these are foreign detachments, including heavy US forces and a Finnish mechanised rapid deployment company from the Pori Brigade. The Swedish Home Guard (Hemvärnet) protects key transports, not as an exercise, but providing security to their foreign guests by patrolling with loaded weapons. This is the host nation support agreement in reality, providing for the needs of foreign reinforcements arriving to help (in this case Sweden) in the defence of one’s country.

The decision regarding which forces get to play OPFOR is revealing, as it is highly likely that they represent the kind of forces the Swedish headquarters expect could be offered as assistance in case of an escalated crises in the Baltic region. These include both the Finnish mechanised company, a US Marine Corps company, US airborne/airmobile forces, and the premier Swedish light units in the form of their Army Ranger battalion (Arméns jägarbataljon) and the 31. Airmobile battalion (31. Luftburna).

The interesting thing here is obviously that this works both ways: the “invaders” get to practice how to rapidly get to Gotland, while the local Swedish forces present there get to practice defending against light mechanised and airmobile forces.

As has been discussed earlier on the blog, the defence of Gotland is crucial for Finland as well as for the Baltic states. MoD Jussi Niinistö makes no secret that what the Finnish Defence Forces practice in the exercise is how to provide support to Sweden, while also noting that the lessons are readily transferable to a scenario where Sweden would support us instead. This is in line with his speech last week, where he noted that Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation aims at being able to, amongst other things, jointly defend “some place”. Feel free to speculate which region(s) that “some” might be.

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Source: Maavoimat FB
The main Finnish unit is from the International Rapid Deployment Forces of the Pori Brigade. The RDF is also part of the recently established readiness units of the Army. In these, conscripts volunteering to serve longer and in more demanding positions are part of the first line of defence and wear the brand-new winged arrow patch as a testimony. As such, the unit is the given first choice as it is both readily available and trained for international missions.

What is clear is that in the shadow of everything else taking place during Aurora 17 Finland is not simply practicing joint international operations with Swedish (and US) forces. Instead, we are openly practicing defending Swedish territory against an enemy invader, and how to do this together with Swedish forces. We are also doing this with the very units that would be involved. If things suddenly would turn bad, the Finnish officers at the head of the units sent to aid our western ally would be familiar with the peculiarities of the terrain of Gotland, and would be able to recognise both the local forces and the light Swedish forces likely to make up the first wave of reinforcements, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and how to best cooperate with them.

While no promises have yet been made, politicians on both sides are currently making sure that they will at least have all options available to them if the gathering clouds would turn into a tempest.

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Source: Maavoimat FB