‘The Best Artillery in Europe’

There are several new developments when it comes to heavy indirect fire in the Finnish Army since I last visited the topic, so here’s a brief overview, including some BONUS-content:

K9 Thunder

The planned procurement of the Korean K9 Thunder self-propelled gun is moving forward. Perhaps the greatest talking point so far has been the discrepancies between reports in KoreanKorean and Finnish media. While Finnish media talks about ‘tens of guns’ for a price tag of ‘100 million Euros or slightly above’, the Korean media is more specific, and mentions 48 guns valued at 400 million US Dollars (375 million Euros), including technology transfer. While the number of guns certainly could be correct, the difference in price is rather staggering…

Contrary to my speculating last time around, the K10 resupply vehicle is not set to be included in the deal. However, Estonia has been invited to join in the procurement. The country has declared their intent to equip their mechanised brigade, the 1. Jalaväebrigaad, with self-propelled artillery. Estonia and Finland has bought defence equipment together before, and a joint buy might be a good way to put some additional pressure on the price.

The first K9 Thunder on Finnish soil attended trials at Rovajärvi firing range last year, as part of the Join Fires Exercise (MVH 2016). The preliminary contract is expected to be signed this spring.

Lost & Found

That the Finnish artillery park has been large is no secret. Exactly how large is.

In an interesting turn of events, the latest reform of the Defence Forces suddenly increased the number of Finnish artillery pieces, 120 mm mortars and up, with about 900 pieces.

This statement, widely presented by the press as Finland hiding information from OSCE, deserves some further comments. Yes, it is certainly not in the spirit of the Vienna Agreement, though part of the explanation lies in the known omissions of the document. The document only covers systems in units down to brigade/regiment level, meaning that those artillery systems deployed in independent battalions and companies, such as the Finnish local defence units, aren’t included. The same goes for the Navy/Marines, which also is outside of the agreement. A third potential issue is stored guns which are again assigned a wartime task, and as such are re-entering the document.

The more interesting part than speculating how it was done is why, and especially why the guns were brought back into the document. There are clearly some high-level signalling taking place.

For those keeping count, the current artillery park is shown as 698 heavy mortars, 18 AMOS self-propelled mortars, 34 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers, 471 light howitzers, 76 130 mm field guns, 156 152/155 mm heavy howitzers/field guns, and 113 MLRS.

The best artillery in Europe

The planned purchase of K9 does not take place in a vacuum, but is one part of the larger plan for upgrading the artillery. The aim, as explained by Inspector of Artillery colonel Pasivirta, is to get the best artillery found in Europe, and with some margin.

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First firing of the 155 mm BONUS Mk II ‘smart’ anti-tank round at MVH 2016. Source: Maavoimat.fi

This includes already made steps, such as the introduction of the BONUS anti-tank round. The round has a range of up to 35 km, and once over the target area two sub-munitions are ejected. These are equipped with sensors, and search for armoured targets. If a suitable target is found, it is destroyed by a shaped-charge punching through the roof of the vehicle, normally the most lightly armoured part. The first firing in Finnish service of this highly potent artillery round took place at the above-mentioned MVH 2016 exercise.

The bigger headline was the announcement that the service is looking into counter-battery radars. These makes it possible to locate the position of firing units, and in some cases even to alert own troops in the enemy’s target area that enemy artillery is heading their way. The acquisition of such as system, Saab’s ARTHUR and ELTA’s ELM-2084 comes to mind, would certainly raise the deadliness of the Finnish artillery, and makes perfect sense.

More puzzling was the tweet issued by the official Finnish MoD Twitter-account. Where the colonel talks about a swift (though not rushed) procurement program with an RFQ coming out this spring, and the system being operational by 2020, the author of the tweet (grumpily?) claims that the ‘Defence Forces have wanted the radars for 30 years, but the acquisition hasn’t even been cleared for an RFI’.

I have now idea what that was about.

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K9 Thunder – Release the Hounds

727.

That is, to the best of my OSINT-knowledge, the number of artillery pieces currently active in the Finnish army.

Ever since World War II, artillery has played a key role in the Finnish take on warfare. The reasons are many, but include having fought the Winter War with preciously little artillery support, the brilliant General of the Artillery (and Mannerheim Knight) Nenonen and his trajectory calculations making what artillery Finland had very effective, having been on the receiving end of the Red Army’s massed artillery strikes in 1944, and a lack of ground attack aircraft for battlefield interdiction. Artillery has also been seen as extremely cost-effective, and has a very long lifespan (thereby reducing life-cycle cost). A measure of the importance placed on artillery during the post-war years was the fact that Finland not only bought the widely-spread 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm self-propelled howitzer, of which around 72 still serve under the 122 PSH 1974 moniker, but was also one of the few export customers for the more powerful 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm long-range self-propelled gun. All 18 pieces of this impressive (but poorly protected) vehicle have now been retired.

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The venerable 2S1 ‘Gvozdika’, mainstay of the current Finnish SPG-fleet. Source: Teemu Maki/Wikimedia Commons

Apart from these two self-propelled vehicles the Finnish artillery relies on mass amounts of traditional towed pieces. The most important artillery piece based purely on numbers is the old (or rather, antiquated) 122 mm D-30 2A18 (122 H-63) Soviet light howitzer, of which just under 500 still remain in service, a number of ex-Finnish howitzers having been shipped to Estonia where they provide an important part of the 1. Jalaväebrigaad’s indirect fire support. For a heavier punch, the 152 mm 2A36 (152 K 89) heavy gun and the legendary 130 mm M-46 (130 K 54) of Khe Sanh fame are available. The final pieces are the Tampella-designed (now Patria) 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, the later being the first towed piece with a 52-calibre barrel length to enter service in Europe.

The target area during an artillery bombardment by 130 mm M-46’s, footage from Finnish Army Vaikuttamisharjoitus 2013 (literally “Impact Exercise 2013″) Edit: Correct designation is ‘Joint Fires Exercise 2013′. 

While getting hit by a 40 kg howitzer shell still hurts as much as it did in 1946, development on the battlefield has not stopped, and a quick look at the Finnish artillery park shows that it is headed for massavanheneminen, a Finnish word which means “many things reaching obsolescence at the same time”. The gap left by the old 122 mm D-30 is largely being covered by advances in heavy mortar technology, and the indigenous 155 mm guns still have useful years left (despite a troubled beginning), but the 2S1 as well as towed 130 and 152 mm guns needs to be replaced.

This isn’t something new, and the Finnish Army held trials with a number of modern SPG’s already back in the early years of the millennium, with the German PzH 2000 reportedly coming out victorious. Budgetary constraints however pushed the acquisition back ‘past 2006’, and the process was restarted with the issuing of a request for information last year. My personal bet was that the PzH 2000 would have come out on top (unless the Army would have thrown a curveball and decided to go for wheels in the name of better operational mobility) The PzH 2000 have bagged an impressive amount of export orders in addition to having proved its worth in Afghanistan.

However, early July the Ministry of Defence released a surprise statement saying they were in negotiations with the Republic of (South) Korea over the acquisition of used K9 Thunder SPG’s. The exact details are still unconfirmed as the negotiations are ongoing, but according to an interview in Finnish tabloid Iltalethi ‘tens’ of guns will be bought for ‘around 100 million [euro] or slightly more’. Notable is also the fact that the original press release says that the deal ‘partially covers artillery becoming obsolete in the 2020-2030 time span’, indicating that further buys, either of more K9’s, another SPG, or some other weapons system, are likely.

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A Korean K9 Thunder being resupplied by a K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

The K9 Thunder might not be as widely seen in Europe as the PzH 2000, but it isn’t a complete stranger to our part of the world either. Turkey has placed a major order on a slightly modified version under the local name T-155 Fırtına, and the chassis was used to salvage the troubled Polish AHS Krab SPG-programme. Perhaps more importantly, the K9 Thunder has been evaluated for the Norwegian new artillery programme, with Finnish (and Danish) observers having attended the trials in Norway.

K9 Thunder during trials in a very snowy Norway earlier this year. Source: Mogens Rasmus Mogensen

The K9 Thunder is pretty much everything you would expect from a modern SPG. The gun is of 52 calibre length, and sports an automatic loader. This allows MRSI (multiple rounds, simultaneous impact), in other words a single artillery piece can fire off a salvo of shells at different angles and with different charges (giving them different speeds), making them all hit the same spot at the same time. This is a key component in allowing the K9 to make shoot and scoot surprise attacks. A battery of vehicles drives into firing position, fires off a number of shells which impact on the unprepared enemy position all at the same time, and then drive away before counter-battery fire hits their position. Interestingly, the K9 Thunder beat the Russian 2S19 Msta-S in an Indian tender, with the K9 now being on track to enter local license production.

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A K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle. The K10 is based on the same vehicle as the K9. Source: Defense Citizens Network/Wikimedia Commons

To maintain such a high rate of fire, the vehicle is supported by a dedicated loading vehicle, the K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle, which connects a munitions transporter to a loading port on the K9, and then feeds ammunition into the SPG at up to 12 shells per minute, until all 104 shells have been transferred. Presumably a number of K10’s would also be bought to support our K9’s.

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A dramatic picture of a K9 Thunder preparing for the counter strike during the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

The K9 Thunder has seen combat in the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong, in which a total of 80 shells were fired at North Korean installations in retaliation of a North Korean artillery bombardment. The bombardment was not a particularly glamorous combat debut, as of six Thunders returning from an exercise in the area, two were damaged by the initial shells and unable to return fire, with a third getting a dud shell stuck in the breech, leaving the other three to conduct the retaliatory bombardment. As the vehicles had been on a live-firing exercise, their stocks of shells were also running low, and as no K10 was available, new 155 mm shells had to be carried by hand through the North Korean bombardment to the K9’s, something which severely limited the rate of fire. In addition, the North Korean artillery was placed in emplacements dug into the cliffs, and as such extremely well protected.

…and when discussing the nickname thirty years from now, remember where you heard it first 😉