This week’s post was supposed to be about F-35 in HX. Then the need for a primer on Finnish unmanned systems appeared and caused a change of plans. Then Russia built a heliport on Gogland, and here we are.
TASS yesterday provided some details. A Mi-26, the Soviet C-130 sized helicopter, flew in the required special equipment including the surface plating. The heliport was then made by the “engineering and aerodrome service of the Leningrad Air Force and Air Defense Army”. Exactly how long it took to get the heliport up and running is uncertain, but on satellite imagery nothing is seen on 2 July, while the base looks finished by 26 July. Incidentally, Putin visited the island on 27 July, so it would seem reasonable to assume the works were finished by then. Notable is that TASS describes the work as a “tactical exercise”, indicating that the capability to airlift the men and equipment needed to build a permanent heliport is seen as a capability for wartime scenarios.
Gogland is a bit of a sore spot for Finnish nostalgics. The beautiful island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland held a thriving Finnish community dating back through the centuries, and was a popular tourist destination before the Second World War. Held by the Finnish forces in the face of a German attack in 1944, it was occupied by the Red Army only after the truce. It is situated well west of the Karelian land border, and close enough to the city of Kotka that the inhabitants define clear weather as when the mountaintops of the island are visible from the Finnish mainland. The military presence on the island has largely made it off-limits to tourists, further adding to the ‘paradise lost’-narrative. For a nice pictorial look at the island today, check out this piece by journalist Magnus Londen who got permission to visit it in 2006.
The island’s strategic location, the westernmost point of continuous Russia and guarding the approaches to St Petersburg, means it has seen steady military use. The exact garrison is uncertain as far as I am aware, but radars and different EW and SIGINT/ELINT sensors are regularly documented on the island.
In recent years several special forces exercises have taken place on the island. In 2015 an amphibious landing by a small naval SOF-party was made, after which the soldiers stormed a “pirate base” located in the ruins of the old Finnish casino. A more high-profile case was when Russian airborne forces staged an exercise raid days before the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki last year. The exercise began with the team being inserted by steerable parachutes from Mi-8AMTSh multipurpose helicopters, jumping out at 2,500 meters height. Having touched down they hid the parachutes, and proceeded to conduct reconnaissance missions and destroy a number of strategic targets, before they prepared a helicopter landing zone and where exfiltrated by helicopter. A total of 50 soldiers and four helicopters were involved in the exercise according to Russian sources.
Throughout this time there has been a small landing spot next to the natural harbour at the site of the former Suurkylä village, on the northeastern shore of the island. However, neither the harbour nor the helicopter facilities have been much to write home about, something that is noteworthy considering the frequent helicopter flights to and from the island, and the general need of having a reliable supply route for the garrison. As such, an improved infrastructure for helicopter operations is not a surprise in and by itself, but as a source with professional insight on the matter told me, “It tells more about their tactical capabilities (and lack of resources) that it was done only now”.
The scope of the heliport should also be noted. It apparently consists of five helipads made of prefabricated plates, landing lights, some kind of flight control, a refuelling station, and some basic maintenance capability. Absent are any kind of shelter from weather and wind (not to mention shrapnel protection), parking spaces, taxiways, or other permanent facilities associated with an air base. While TASS notes that the structures are “permanent”, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that helicopters will be based permanently on the island. In essence, this is a refuelling stop and an attempt at improving the supply route to the island itself. Or as the source described it:
A permanent landing spot has been prepared, but there’s no way that it deserves to be labelled a ‘base’
What are then the potential uses of the heliport? Granted it does offer longer reach for helicopters operating over the Gulf of Finland, but it’s hard to see this extra reach being a game-changer strategically or even tactically. It does allow for helicopters transferring between mainland bases and ships operating in the western Gulf of Finland to top up their fuel levels, but the benefits are rather minor compared to the earlier situation.
Neither does it provide any kind of crucial edge for airborne operations against targets further west, such as e.g. the much-discussed Åland islands-scenario. In the case of a surprise airborne attack on Åland, even if the helicopters would fly the shortest route, passing directly over Helsinki, they would still lack the fuel for the return trip.*
A larger issue when functioning as a staging ground for an airborne assault is however the lack of landing space available. With just five landing spots an air assault could lift just 120 soldiers in one go, or less if the transport helicopters would be escorted by dedicated attack helicopters. For an air assault on targets on either shore of the Gulf of Finland, operating from the larger bases on the mainland still provide greater tactical and operational flexibility. Especially considering the fact that keeping eyes on low-flying helicopters in the archipelago is rather difficult as it stands.
However, the main drawback of the base is the fact that it is well within range of Finnish artillery, both 155 mm guns as well as the M270 MLRS with their M30A1 Alternative Warheads (in essence a precision-guided 70 km shotgun), a rocket that would be excellent for taking out the whole heliport and the helicopters standing tightly grouped together in one go. The same issue is probably the reason why the island isn’t host to any Russian long-range air defence systems.
The island is nicely within range. Our neighbor has no illusions about that.
The one military benefit operating from Gogland could offer is for maritime patrol helicopters scanning the sea or looking for underwater activities in peacetime. Still, even these operations would be somewhat weather dependent due to the lack of shelters on the island.
However, when it comes to maritime operations, what the heliport does offer is significantly increased time on station for helicopters involved in search and rescue missions in case of a maritime accident in the eastern Gulf of Finland.
Honestly, the biggest “operational” change is that the capacity for sea rescue missions over the eastern Gulf of Finland increases. Our helicopters as well can land there now, if the need arises.
The sentiment is echoed by professor Lt.Col. Petteri Lalu on Twitter:
However, as professor Lalu also noted, while the ability to build a FOB with airlifted parts (over the time of a few weeks?) is interesting, the big picture here isn’t about Gogland. Instead it is the general growth in military capacity in Russia’s northwestern corner. From a Finnish point of view, more worrying than five landing spots on Gogland is the 15th Army Aviation Brigade at Ostrov, Pskov Oblast, which currently has a squadron each of Mi-28N, Ka-52, and Mi-35M attack helicopters (the number of Mi-35M possibly being less than a full squadron), as well as a strong squadron of Mi-8MTV-5 air assault helicopters and four Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, as well as a small number of Mi-8MTPR-1 Rychag electronic warfare helicopters. The unit was set up as a brand new unit in 2013, and is equipped with the most modern helicopters available to the Russian army aviation. Another base that has received more love in recent years is Gromovo (located in former Finnish Karelia, and formerly known as Sakkola). The field currently sort under the 33rd Independent Transport Composite Aviation Regiment (33 OTSAP) based at Levashovo. While Gromovo doesn’t have any units permanently attached, the former fighter base has hosted several major detachments during larger exercises in recent years, including helicopter units and naval fighters(!).
As these kinds of investments in major infrastructure take place over time they tend to generate fewer headlines than smaller and more sudden events. However, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Gogland heliport in itself does not deteriorate the Finnish security environment, but the major trend of increased military capability in general and airborne infrastructure in particular does present the Finnish Defence Forces with new threat scenarios that might need to be countered in case of an armed conflict. In particular the need for the ability to react swiftly to a surprising first strike, possibly taking place deep within Finnish territory, is emphasized, something that has been a general theme since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
*For those interested in the details: a Mi-8MTV-5 (a version roughly corresponding to the AMTSh but built by the competing Kazan plant instead of at Ulan-Ude) travelling the shortest possible route from Gogland to Åland would be left with just 665 litres for the return flight, i.e. less than half of what’s needed to get back to Gogland. These numbers are adapted from the Kaliningrad to Slite scenario presented by Jan Åkerberg in his article “Det ryska armeflyget 2017” in The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences’ Proceeding and Journal no. 3/2019.